TechCrunch talking about Friendster, asking “what went wrong”? In my opinion, the question should be, “why did anyone expect it to increase in value?”
The story of friendster illustrates several themes about Internet culture that I’ve talked about before:
- Social Behavior is Fickle – people hang out at a physical place, because it’s the place they expect to find the people they want to hang with. Same with social spaces. And when a particular hangout gets old, that’s all there is to it. You can try your best to make your space “sticky”, to reward loyalty, but the other space is working just as hard to make it easy for people to transfer. If you track hot restaurants or party spots in any city, you already know this. It’s a terrible idea to think that a hot place will always be hot, that it’s hot because of some specific strategy that you can own, or that you can sink even more money into it to make it hotter.
- People Ignore the Past – Everyone knows about IRC and Usenet. Why on earth did ICQ become big when it did? Do people remember Virtual Worlds, or some of the other 3D environments that were hot at one time? MUDs? People thought blogger was hot, until Xanga came from nowhere, and then Spaces blew past it in a few months. Today it’s all about MySpace and YouTube. But this has been happening for several years. 6 years ago, Geocities was sitting in the top 5. Between then and now, we saw several other “community” sites land in the top of the stats, including some Japanese one I can’t remember. The only thing that’s constant is that these virtual social spaces come, get huge, and go.
- People Overestimate the Influence of the “Influentials” – Just because Esther Dyson is on the board, does not mean a space will be hot. Just because the space uses all of the latest buzzwords and priest-approved open-source methodologies and licenses, does not mean it will be hot. In fact, the vast bulk of HUGE, INTERESTING activity has caught the experts completely by surprise. Who thought that a bunch of Asian kids in the southwest US could bootstrap a phenomenon and cause Xanga to get big? Who thought MSN Spaces could do better than MSN Communities? The MySpace guys were not involved in any of the “insider” forums, didn’t team up with any rockstar technologists, but they’re at the top of the heap right now. And don’t even start with the thousands of kids practically living in online game spaces, farming for gold and relating to their friends. These virtual social spaces just dwarf anything that Friendster ever hoped to be.
In my opinion, managing a social space is way more about being a club promoter than about being a technologist. And sometimes being a good club promoter is knowing when a club needs to be retired.