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What the Heck Is Social Networking?

Jonathan Abrams is founder and CEO of Friendster, one of the leading online social network services. With more than 4 million members, the company attracted $13 million in VC money last year. In his well-attended SXSW Interactive keynote, Abrams shared some stories about how to build a successful online company in the aftermath of the dot-com bust. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk.

Jonathan Abrams is founder and CEO of Friendster, one of the leading online social network services. With more than 4 million members, the company attracted $13 million in VC money last year.

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In his well-attended SXSW Interactive keynote, Abrams shared some stories about how to build a successful online company in the aftermath of the dot-com bust. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk.

I’m here because of a goofy little Web site that I whipped up not too long ago. I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of Friendster, how it got created and why. I’m going to talk a little bit about the approach, some of the ideas behind it. And I’ll talk a little bit about the phenomenon, which I think is the most interesting part. But I’d also like to talk about what the hell is social networking? It’s something that confuses me a lot. I’d like to probe into the implications of what not just Friendster is doing.

The story of Friendster is that my girlfriend dumped me and I created the Web site to get laid. That’s a good story, and I’ve seen it printed in various places. It helps for getting consumer press, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s more boring than that. Running an Internet company with a bunch of dudes and spending your time in front of a computer isn’t the best way to have a rich social life.

I noticed in 2002 that friends of mine were talking about using online dating sites. When I was a teenager in Toronto, I ran a bulletin board with a modem, and there was a bulletin board that was basically a dating site. The real problem was not that they were missing photos. The real problem was that it was missing women. There weren’t a lot of hot babes with Commodore 64’s in Toronto in the ’80s.

Because I’ve been using this stuff so long in my career, I didn’t really want to start dating online. Match.com started in 1995, but in 2002 it really hit an inflection point. I didn’t find those services at all. I found the idea of chatting with random, anonymous strangers really creepy. I’m also a big networker professionally, and I noticed that a friend had a lot of female friends he was hanging out with, and he wasn’t sleeping with them, but he would hook up with their friends. I’m sure you know people like that.

What if there was a way to meet people online through your friends? This would be better for dating, but it would also be better for things that weren’t dating. So I started thinking about a dating site that wasn’t about dating. Buddy lists where you know everybody and online discussions where things are totally open have been basically how people interact. That’s not how we interact in the real world. I wanted to build something in the middle.

It wasn’t just a better way of meeting people online, it was a different way to interact with people online. People ask me about the Friendster community, and there realy isn’t a Friendster community. There are 6 million communities. There are a lot of online communities, and they’re great at what they do. A lot of these online communities are for people who don’t know each other and might never meet each other. That’s not what we’re trying to do with Friendster. I was interested in doing something where I wasn’t going to be cyberkitten307.

At this conference, we’re wearing name tags with our real names. That’s the kind of experience I wanted to create with Friendster. The beta for Friendster went up in March 2003. It’s grown pretty fast. We never did any marketing. We still don’t have a PR firm. I just put this thing up. And my friends invited their friends, who invited their friends.

I watch what people do, and it was kind of a weird vantage point to see what people were doing. But I got a lot of feedback, and that informed how the site was created. In October 2003, after raising some money, I’ve been able to hire a lot of interesting people. We’ve got people from Excite and eBay. These last few months, I’ve been bullding the people infrastructure for Friendster.

One of the things that was central to the design of Friendster was simplicity. A lot of academics and pundits look at Friendster and think that it’s dumbed down. Friendster was not designed for people who can program a Linux kernel. Friendster is for a mainstream audience. Everyone has at least one friend. I just keep trying to think about regular people. Will a 25-year-old girl working at a Starbucks in Idaho be able to use it? Now we have to become more flexible and powerful because we have a lot of people who use it in different ways.

A lot of people want to create a viral service. Friendster goes beyond this viral marketing that people talk about. It’s something I call viral nagging. People get peer pressure from their friends to sign up, improve their profile, and change their photo. That’s more powerful than anything I could do. Instead of a site like Match.com where you build a site and hope your friends find you, you build your site with them.

Another interesting thing is the definition of a friend. What is a friend? I have more than 200 friends in my list. The idea of ranking your friends is not something I find appealing, but we do need some way to organize this. If I and my friends choose to, Friendster could be a way to share information about what events we’re going to. People struggle with the whole idea of what is a friend. Friendster asks whether a person is your friend or not. We’re trying to provide some level of organization, but it’s not perfect.

There are some misconceptions about Friendster. Different people use it in different ways, but journalists seem to think that there is one way you’re supposed to use it. Then they think that what they hear isn’t what was intended. Then there’s the concept of imitation only. There’s this site called Orkut that’s kind of gimmicky, but it won’t be that way always.

What Friendster really does is collide your world together for better or for worse. In addition to using the weak ties, not just your close friends, it also collapses time and space. With Friendster, you can see that person as the person you want to met without being in the same place at the same time. If you’re at a bondage club in San Francisco and your boss walks in, ooh, that’s kind of awkward.

It’s an illusion to think that you can manage different personas for different people’s access, but we are working on more privacy so different people can see different information. I talked our director of community for some interesting stories. We’ve had people accidentally delete a friend from their friend’s list, and their friends apply peer pressure to add them back to their list. Then they email us and ask us to undo the deletion. If they added them again, they’d get an invitation, which would highlight the deletion in the first place. In the real world, people do get snubbed. We’ve tried to build Friendster so it mirrors real life, so it has some of the challenges of real life.

People sign up who wouldn’t sign up for a traditional dating site. And people seek contact who wouldn’t normally do so. We also hear about the Friendster addict. When people first sign up, there’s usually a little frenzy, but that can’t continue forever. People care about people, and Friendster is all about people. It’s also all hypertext. You see one person, and they have an interesting-looking friend. They have a testimonial from another person, and you find that you’re connected to that person. Some people say that Friendster is ruining their life and that it got them fired.

DeanLink and Clarkster are two sites modeled after Friendster. We’ve been mentioned on TV shows, the OC and Everwood. We’ve been in mainstream magazines, not just computer magazines. Ahmet Zappa announced his engagement on Friendster. It’s been a crazy phenomenon. And the influence of Friendster going into politics is pretty weird. As are the copycats. Friendster a year ago was me in my apartment. Compared to these really large companies, we’re still really small. There have been parodies. We’re all sick with things that end with “ster.” The rumors have been another crazy thing: The CIA is running Friendster.

We had a new clothing line come out last week. We’re talking about a reality TV show. I thought it’d be a cool Web site, but the whole cultural thing has been amazing. The social networking thing really confuses me. When Ryze started in 2001, it was a business networking site. At first it didn’t really look like Friendster. What I wanted to do was not business networking but social networking. What happened was a bunch of people interested in business-oriented things, social networking means any service or site that has some aspect of the space. I don’t even know what the space of social networking means.

People also talk about Friendster in terms of online community. Friendster is just one more in a long line of online communities. There are a lot that will follow. People now use social networking to refer to that, too. Communicating with people online is not a hyped-up thing. It’s not a bubble. But it’s still confusing. People also talk about stuff they do in their real life: “I do social networking at this club.” It’s not even a useful term anymore. Hopefully, people will stop talking about it in six months, even if more people are using it.

People are also confused about the business model for social networking. We already have advertisements on our site. We will add some premium services. But we won’t charge people to sign in. I don’t think “business model” even makes sense. If people said “business models,” it might make more sense, but it’s still not very interesting. There’s a hunger for some kind of mini-bubble.

What is the real vision of Friendster? The idea is to experience the Internet, but to experience it with your friends. We are trying to improve on what people do on the Internet realizing that we are connected. In 2004, you’ll see more applications added to the platform. There are some interesting implications to that. I’ll meet someone at a party, and the next day I can see what they really look like — or someone will send me a Friendster message. A universal yearbook is pretty interesting. Once upon a time people had to make plans. Now we have cell phones and we can call at the last minute. With Friendster, you can contact people without really knowing their contact information.

When you look at the world as a networked world, it’s a very different thing. What Friendster does today is very global. What if it were very personal. In eBay you can see people’s rating. What if you could see your global personal rating. How does that change the utility to you — and how does it affect your ability to screw up? It’s the Web of trust concept, but it’s also the Web of influence. When you think of your social network as a filter to stem information overload and prevent abuse, a lot of things become possible.

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