In 1995, before the phrase online social network had entered our vocabulary and years before the dot.com crash spawned the term Web 2.0, a Boeing engineer named Randy Conrad developed a new kind of Web site. Conrad attended high school in the Philippines. He attended college in the United States and began working for Boeing after graduation. As the World Wide Web began to grow in the public consciousness, Conrad got an idea.
Conrad wanted to track down a classmate he knew back in high school. But despite the global nature of the World Wide Web, he wasn't successful. He sat down with his son to figure out a way to make it easier to reconnect with old friends and classmates. Eventually this project developed into Classmates.com, the first big social networking site on the Web [source: Kaiser].
Today, the site receives more than 16 million visitors per month [source: Compete]. While other sites like Facebook and MySpace have membership that dwarfs Classmates.com's, the original online social network still attracts new users.
Classmates.com departs from most other online social networks in a big way -- many of its features are only available to premium members. To take advantage of everything Classmates.com has to offer, users must purchase a Gold membership. The price of membership depends upon the length of the agreement. Shorter terms result in a higher cost per month.
While this means that Classmates.com has a clear business model -- something other social networking sites have struggled with in the past -- it has also led to controversy. We'll take a closer look at what you can do on Classmates.com as well as why some people criticize the Web site's marketing strategy.
Creating a basic Classmates.com profile is free. To build a profile, you simply visit the site and identify the school you attended. For users in the United States, this process begins with the visitor selecting the appropriate state, city and school. This leads the visitor to a membership form.
To join Classmates.com, you must provide your name, date of graduation, birthday and e-mail address. You also must create a password for your account. Once you've filled out that information, you'll be prompted to purchase a membership package. Packages range in price and duration -- the longer the term of membership, the lower the price.
If you don't want to purchase a membership, you can continue to use the site with a free profile. The site will lead you through a profile-building process. This includes uploading a profile photo, filling out a short description of what you've been up to since graduation and inviting other people to join the network. After that, visitors will have the option to enroll in MyPoints, a site that lets users trade accumulated points for products.
Once all that's done, you can fill out your profile with more information about who you were in school, what you do now and the things you like to do. You can also look to see who else from your school is on the service or take quizzes for fun.
Of course, the main reason to use Classmates.com is to reconnect with old classmates. The site features a search engine that lets you view other people who went to the same school you attended. You can restrict searches to the year you graduated if you wish, and you can view other profiles, too. But unless you upgrade to a Gold membership you may not get much farther than that.
Benefits of Classmates.com
A free Classmates.com account gives you access to only a few features. You can create your profile and deck it out to your heart's content. You can also look at the profiles of fellow users. And you can participate in group discussions on message boards. But after that, your options begin to dwindle.
If you want to be able to send messages to fellow members, you'll have to upgrade to a Gold membership. To leave a message on another person's public bulletin board requires at least one of the two of you to have a Gold membership. You can designate your location on a map with a free account, but to view anyone else's location you'll have to pay for a membership.
Other Gold membership features include event-planning tools. Using these, you can create invitations for gatherings and reunions. You can also see the names and messages left by people who have visited your profile. A Gold membership gives you the option to build a private photo album and message board, too.
In many ways, the membership structure of Classmates.com resembles an online dating service more than other online social network sites. Sending messages on other services is usually free to all members. But many dating sites require users to pay for a membership before they can actually make contact with other members.
If you do upgrade to a full membership, you'll be able to take advantage of all the features. You'll have the ability to contact other members and organize events. However, these features will be somewhat limited depending upon the account status of the people you try to contact. Some may create a profile only to abandon it later rather than upgrade to a full membership.
Having to pay to access basic features might annoy some users. But that's just one of several complaints that some people have aimed at Classmates.com.
Complaints About Classmates.com
One of the most common complaints leveled at Classmates.com has to do with e-mail. The company's marketing strategy involves sending messages out to potential members to entice them to join. While some people shrug this off as spam, others have found it to be invasive and misleading.
That was the case for Anthony Michaels. Michaels received a message from Classmates.com claiming friends of his from high school had been trying to locate him. Based on this e-mail message, he decided to purchase a Gold membership with the site. Once he did, he was surprised to discover that none of his friends had looked for him at all. He sued Classmates.com for false advertising in 2008 [source: Singel].
Another complaint aimed at Classmates.com involves billing. Some users have claimed that they intended to sign up for a trial account but were charged for a membership later. Classmates.com would renew a user's subscription automatically, charging the person's account. Some claimed that they continued to be billed for memberships even after attempting to cancel their accounts several times [source: Raphael].
If you do have a problem with Classmates.com, it may be difficult to get in touch with someone who can help. If you follow the links back to the Classmates Media Corporation site, you'll find a contact link. The link connects you to an online form in which you provide your name, e-mail and phone number as well as your message. Finding a phone number is more challenging.
While the Better Business Bureau has given Classmates.com low grades in the past, as of August 2009 its rating was an A+. That suggests the site has become much more adept at responding to and resolving customer complaints. That's good news for Classmates.com members. But with the rise of other sites like Facebook and MySpace, how many people are willing to pay for the ability to send a message to an old friend?
We have Classmates.com to thank for getting the online social networking model off the ground. While some may dismiss its business model as being out of touch, the site has succeeded in helping long-lost friends reconnect.
Learn more about social networking through the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Better Business Bureau. "Classmates.com." (Aug. 28, 2009) http://www.bbb.org/western-washington/business-reviews/internet-services/classmatescom-in-seattle-wa-15025654
- Classmates.com (Aug. 26, 2009) http://www.classmates.com/
- Compete. "Classmates.com." (Aug. 28, 2009) http://siteanalytics.compete.com/classmates.com/
- Guynn, Jessica. "Classmates.com offering is called off." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: Dec. 13, 2007. pg. C. 3.
- Kaiser, Nathan. "Interview with Michael Schutzler, CEO of Classmates.com." npost. July 29, 2002. (Aug. 26, 2009) http://www.npost.com/2002/07/29/interview-with-michael-schutzler-ceo-of-classmatescom/
- Miller, Jennifer. "The Evolution Will Be Uploaded." IDEA. May 25, 2007. (Aug. 26, 2009) http://www.ideaii.com/news/2007-0525.asp
- Morrissey, Brian. "Classmates.com: Old School, New Tack." Brandweek. New York: May 29, 2006. Vol. 47. Iss. 22. pg. 13.
- Raphael, JR. "5 Reasons I Hope Classmates.com Gets Sued Into Oblivion." PCWorld. Nov. 12, 2008. (Aug. 26, 2009) http://www.pcworld.com/article/153769/5_reasons_i_hope_classmatescom_gets_sued_into_oblivion.html
- Singel, Ryan. "Classmates.com User Sues; Schoolmates Weren't Really Looking for Him." Wired. Nov. 12, 2008. (Aug. 28, 2009) http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/2008/11/classmates