Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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iStock

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.

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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.

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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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Dollymania: When Dolly the Sheep Created a '90s Media Sensation

Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Paul Hudson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Saturday, February 22, 1997, and British researchers Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell were expecting a final moment of calm before the results of their unprecedented scientific experiment were announced to the world.

The team had kept the breakthrough under wraps for seven months while they waited for their paper to be published in the prestigious journal Nature. Confidential press releases had gone out to journalists with the strict instruction not to leak the news before February 27.

But that night, the team was tipped off that journalist Robin McKie was going to break the story the very next day in the British newspaper The Observer.

Wilmut and Campbell raced to the lab at the Roslin Institute on Sunday morning as McKie's story hit the media like a thunderbolt. International news outlets had already started swarming at the institute for access to Wilmut and Campbell's creation: Dolly the sheep, the world's first mammal successfully cloned from a single adult cell. Shielded from the general public, she stuck her nose through the fence and munched calmly on the hay in her pen, unperturbed by the horde of news photographers. Dolly, a woolly, bleating scientific miracle, looked much like other sheep, but with a remarkable genetic difference.

By the end of that Sunday, February 23, nearly every major newspaper in the world carried headlines about Dolly the sheep.

A Long-Awaited Breakthrough

Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly was cloned by Wilmut and Campbell's team at the Roslin Institute, a part of the University of Edinburgh, and Scottish biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics. The scientists cloned Dolly by inserting DNA from a single sheep mammary gland cell into an egg of another sheep, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother sheep. Dolly thus had three mothers—one that provided the DNA from the cell, the second that provided the egg, and the third that carried the cloned embryo to term. Technically, though, Dolly was an exact genetic replica of only the sheep from which the cell was taken.

Following the announcement, the Roslin Institute received 3000 phone calls from around the world. Dolly's birth was heralded as one of the most important scientific advances of the decade.

But Dolly wasn't science's first attempt at cloning. Researchers had been exploring the intricacies of cloning for almost a century. In 1902, German embryologists Hans Spemann and Hilda Mangold, his student, successfully grew two salamanders from a single embryo split with a noose made up of a strand of hair. Since then, cloning experiments continued to become more sophisticated and nuanced. Several laboratory animal clones, including frogs and cows, were created before Dolly. But all of them had been cloned from embryos. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from a specialized adult cell.

Embryonic stem cells, which form right after fertilization, can turn into any kind of cell in the body. After they modify into specific types of cells, like neurons or blood cells, they're call specialized cells. Since the cell that gave rise to Dolly was already specialized for its role as a mammary gland cell, most scientists thought it would be impossible to clone anything from it but other mammary gland cells. Dolly proved them wrong. 

A Worldwide Reaction—And Controversy

Many scientists in the '90s were flabbergasted. Dolly’s advent showed that specialized cells could be used to create an exact replica of the animal they came from. “It means all science fiction is true,” biology professor Lee Silver of Princeton University told The New York Times in 1997.

The Washington Post reported that "Dolly, depending on which commentator you read, is the biggest story of the year, the decade, even the century. Wilmut has seen himself compared with Galileo, with Copernicus, with Einstein, and at least once with Dr. Frankenstein."

Scientists, lawmakers, and the public quickly imagined a future shaped by unethical human cloning. President Bill Clinton called for review of the bioethics of cloning and proposed legislation that would ban cloning meant ''for the purposes of creating a child” (it didn't pass). The World Health Organization concluded that human cloning was "ethically unacceptable and contrary to human integrity and morality" [PDF]. A Vatican newspaper editorial urged governments to bar human cloning, saying every human has "the right to be born in a human way and not in a laboratory."

Meanwhile, some scientists remained unconvinced about the authenticity of Wilmut and Campbell’s experiment. Norton Zinder, a molecular genetics professor at Rockefeller University, called the study published in Nature "a bad paper" because Dolly's genetic ancestry was not conclusive without testing her mitochondria—DNA that is passed down through mothers. That would have confirmed whether Dolly was the daughter of the sheep that gave birth to her. In The New York Times, Zinder called the Scottish pair's work ''just lousy science, incomplete science." But NIH director Harold Varmus told the Times that he had no doubt that Dolly was a clone of an adult sheep.

Dollymania!

Because she was cloned from a mammary gland cell, Dolly was named—dad joke alert—after buxom country music superstar Dolly Parton. (Parton didn’t mind the attribution.) Like her namesake, Dolly the sheep was a bona fide celebrity: She posed for magazines, including People; became the subject of books, journal articles, and editorials; had an opera written about her; starred in commercials; and served as a metaphor in an electoral campaign.

And that wasn't all: New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, one of the first journalists to give readers an in-depth look at Dolly, wrote Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead and contrasted the animal's creation with the archetypes in Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. American composer Steve Reich was so affected by Dolly's story that he featured it in Three Tales, a video-opera exploring the dangers of technology.

The sheep also became an inadvertent political player when the Scottish National Party used her image on posters to suggest that candidates of other parties were all clones of one another. Appliance manufacturer Zanussi used her likeness for a poster with her name and the provocative caption "The Misappliance of Science" (the poster was later withdrawn after scientists complained). In fact, so widespread was the (mis)use of her name that her makers eventually trademarked it to stop the practice.

Dolly's Legacy

Following Dolly, many larger mammals were cloned, including horses and bulls. Roslin Biomed, set up by the Roslin Institute to focus on cloning technology, was later sold to the U.S.-based Geron Corporation, which combined cloning technology with stem cell research. But despite her popularity—and widespread fear— Dolly's birth didn't lead to an explosion in cloning: Human cloning was deemed too dangerous and unethical, while animal cloning was only minimally useful for agricultural purposes. The sheep's real legacy is considered to be the advancement in stem cell research.

Dolly’s existence showed it was possible to change one cell’s gene expression by swapping its nucleus for another. Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka told Scientific American that Dolly’s cloning motivated him to successfully develop stem cells from adult cells. He later won a Nobel Prize for his results, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) because they're artificially created and can have a variety of uses. They reduced the need for embryonic stem cells in research, and today, iPS cells form the basis for most stem cell research and therapies, including regenerative medicine.

Dolly had six offspring, and led a productive, sociable life with many human fans coming to visit her. In 2003, a veterinary examination showed that Dolly had a progressive lung disease, and she was put down. But four clones created from the same cell line in 2007 faced no such health issues and aged normally.

Dolly is still a spectacle, though, nearly 25 years after her creation: Her body was taxidermied and put on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.