Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
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Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
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Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chuck Barris had a problem. As the creator and producer of a new ABC game show titled The Dating Game, Barris had thought it would be entertaining to see three men vie for the affections of a woman who quizzed them from behind a screen. Because they'd be unable to rely on visual cues or physical attraction, the contestant and her would-be suitors would have to assess their chemistry based on verbal interplay, and wouldn't see each other face-to-face until she selected a winner.

Unfortunately, early tapings of the game in 1965 had not gone well. Barris later recalled that both the men and women had tasteless responses, answering the contestant's questions with profane remarks full of sexual innuendo that would be unacceptable for daytime television. The shows could not be aired.

Then Barris had an idea. He asked a friend of his who was an actor to dress in a hat and raincoat to give the appearance of a law enforcement official. The man walked into the dressing room where the bachelors were waiting to go on air. He lied and told them that any profanity or overt sexual references would be a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, a federal offense. They might even get sentenced to jail time.

From that point on, there were no more problems with people uttering expletives on The Dating Game, a long-running series that acted as a precursor to The Bachelor as well as a host of other dating shows. Recognizable for its campy 1960s set, host Jim Lange blowing kisses at the audience, and its inane questioning of contestants, the show marked a pivotal shift away from game shows that offered monetary gain and instead offered a potentially greater reward: true love.

Barris, a game show legend who would go on to create The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, was an ABC executive at the time. As head of daytime programming, he spent much of his time fielding what he thought were many ill-conceived pitches for shows from producers. He told fellow daytime executive Leonard Goldberg that he could come up with something better. But when Goldberg told him to try, Barris replied he had a wife and child and couldn’t spare the time. Goldberg offered to listen to an informal pitch. Barris came up with The Dating Game.

Some have observed the genesis of the show came as a result of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which posited that women could enjoy more casual relationships without the prospect of marriage looming over their heads. In the more sexually adventurous ‘60s, a show about a simple courtship—particularly one steered by a woman—was still seen as progressive.

At the time, game shows were relegated to contests that typically featured a prize, or at least bragging rights to having won. Jeopardy! and The Price is Right were on the air handing out cash and cars. But Barris was more interested in an intangible benefit. Though the woman and her chosen suitor would be sent out for a dinner date, the expense was minimal, and no one was paid to appear on the show. For viewers, it was about who would find love—or at least the appearance of it.

To select contestants to appear on the series, Barris devised a referral system. After recruiting an initial round of potential participants, his staff had them fill out several forms consisting of their personal information. One of the sheets was reserved for people they already knew and who they felt would be a good fit for the series; a blue form was used for bachelors; and pink for single women. Staffers would be on the phone all day, calling candidates and ushering them in for further evaluation.

For Barris, a contestant on The Dating Game needed to be gregarious, glib, and able to elaborate on answers. If questions weren’t up to snuff, his writers would help craft queries meant to elicit slightly salacious—but never profane—responses. (The questions ranged from perceptive to queries like, “If men are what they eat, which vegetable do you consider yourself?”) Test games would be held in Barris’s Hollywood offices. Out of a pool of 1000 possible contestants, the show would decide on 132 of them to fill their taping needs.

 

For a host, Barris chose Jim Lange, a popular radio personality, to move the game along. Each episode consisted of two complete games, usually a woman interrogating three men—though the format was soon changed to allow for a switch in roles, with three women vying for one man. Barris also enlisted celebrities or soon-to-be celebrities like John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Selleck, as well as occasionally sprinkling in a crush, work colleague, or someone else the contestant might know in their private life.

The show was an immediate hit on daytime when it premiered in December 1965. The series soon expanded to primetime in 1966 with a slight change in format: The “dates” now included travel to romantic hotspots like Paris and Rome in an effort to broaden the scope of the show. These trips involved the use of chaperones—a necessity, Barris said, because few parents would allow their young daughters out of the country with a veritable stranger.

The Dating Game aired on ABC through 1973 and entered syndication for one year. In 1978, it went into syndication again (Barris was no longer directly involved), with Lange returning as host. This version, however, was perceived as lewd, with contestants and producers making less of an effort to stifle the sexual wordplay. (“Let’s hear about your tool chest” was among the less-than-clever prompts offered by contestants.) Various other iterations have aired over the years, morphing into the more elaborate find-a-mate series like The Bachelor, which not only expects contestants to have chemistry but eventually wed. Strangely, the conceit seems more old-fashioned than the show that started the genre.

Those shows owe quite a debt to Barris, who eventually left television altogether after feeling as though he was becoming pigeonholed by his game show successes. Barris later penned his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell, directed by George Clooney, and written by Charlie Kaufman), in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA and executed targets while chaperoning winners of The Dating Game. That sensational assertion is in doubt, but Barris’s contributions to romance as a television commodity are not. The notion of dating as entertainment goes back to his original idea, a simple partition, and a man in a raincoat.

The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet

Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Men aren't the only ones to have rocked the style: Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna have both sported the look—albeit a decade apart.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it "nonsense."

Dacre Montgomery in 'Stranger Things'
Dacre Montgomery rocks a mullet as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Netflix

But try telling that to the hairstyle's latest throng of fans, many of whom have been inspired to go back in time for the short-long look by Netflix's Stranger Things. "I cut at least one or two a week,” London hairstylist Idalina Domingos, who sports a shaggy-styled mullet herself, told The Guardian in August 2019. "There are these modern mullets, people are coming round to the idea. It’s a fun haircut to have and it's only going to get more popular."

For others, the cut is timeless. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, is hosting its third annual Mulletfest, a celebration of all things badly shorn, on February 29, 2020. “We have so many mullets in town,” co-organizer Sarah Bedford said. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years."

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