Social networking has become one of the biggest things to hit the Internet since Google, and Friendster was one of the first Web sites to bring it into mass culture. Started in 2002 by U.S. businessman Jonathan Abrams, Friendster.com was designed as a place to connect with friends, family, colleagues and new friends over the Internet. But it went beyond just a one-way communication like Evite, which connects the social lives of people who already know each other.
Friendster is set up like a community geared at the following activities:
- Connecting with friends and family
- Meeting new people through the connections you already have
- Finding people with similar interests, backgrounds or geographical locations
- Joining groups by activity, school or interest
- Interacting via message posts, games, blogs and application sharing
- Representing yourself, your interests or your business to the Internet community
Friendster currently boasts more than 65 million members [source: Friendster.com]. While that may seem like a lot, competitors like Facebook and MySpace have similar (if not higher) numbers. In 2004, Friendster's popularity declined rapidly in the U.S. as these newer, more application-rich competitors started popping up. Since then, they have steadily been overtaking Friendster in popularity and "coolness" factor.
When Abrams rejected a $30 million buyout offer from Google, only later to step down, Friendster's future was uncertain. But management changes and a growth spurt in Asian users may spell relief for this social networking site that still attracts a lot of users, many of whom are based outside the U.S.
So who are these users? Friendster is open to adults 18 and older. While it originally dominated in the 20-something market, it now focuses on an older, financially independent, post-college crowd [source: Reuters].
In this article, we'll learn how to use Friendster, what it can do for you and what some of the larger concerns surrounding social networking are, such as information tracking and user safety.
Next: Find out whose profile gets nearly 800,000 views per month.
To become a Friendster, first you need to create an account. Clicking the sign up button on the main page will take you to a form requesting your user name, e-mail address, password, country you live in, gender and birth date.
You'll also enter a security question in case you forget your user name and password. Next you'll be asked to upload a photo. If you're shy, just click "continue." Follow the directions to check your e-mail for a confirmation notice, and that's it. You're a Friendster.
Now you can move on to create your profile, which will look something like this.
Sample Friendster profile
The profile is your home base on Friendster. It's also your face to the Friendster world. Here you can manage your account, make connections and customize the information friends (or all members, depending on your settings) can see about you. If you get lost, click the Home tab in the blue navigation bar at the top of the page to bring you back to your profile.
Here are some highlights:
- Add photos and video. Upload pictures and videos of yourself, pets, friends and family. Avoid nudity, copyrighted material or anything explicitly negative or harmful. That can get you kicked off the site (or worse).
- Post messages. Each profile has a bulletin board where friends can leave you messages and vice versa.
- Write a blog.
- Write reviews of music, movies, books and TV.
- Create an avatar. Avatars are character representations of your personality. They can even be animated in 3-D.
Remember those 65 million users? That means up to 65 million profiles, ranging from ghostly shells with no photo and minimal information abandoned after the initial thrill, to tricked-out pages flashing with animation and hourly updates. How fancy you get is a question of commitment. Various cottage industries have sprung up for this very reason. Sites like Friendster-Tweakers, Friendster-Layouts and Pimp-My-Profile can whip up pretty and organized profiles for the time- or technically-challenged. Fees usually apply, but people may think you did it all yourself.
Karen Kong holds the title for most-visited Friendster profile. The Malaysian pop star gets 800,000 page views monthly [source: Liu]. It's hard to say exactly what makes a superstar profile, whether it's celebrity status, creating buzz with a blog or application or simply having a lot of friends. Technically, Kong's page is considered a Fan Profile.
Fan Profiles are the latest feature causing buzz and controversy. Naysayers call them "fakesters." Unlike regular profiles, which individuals use to connect personally with other individuals, Fan Profiles are dedicated to already-famous celebrities, bands, TV shows, movies and characters. The controversy comes in over similarities to MySpace, viewed by some users to be more a networking tool for bands than for everyday users, and bringing into question the whole notion of friends.
How evil are you? Find out who's asking, and what constitutes a "friend," in the next section.
If profiles are the house, applications are the TV and telephone. As social networking sites reached saturation, many people found themselves with multiple profiles, tons of friends and nothing new to do with them. That's where applications come in. Also sometimes referred to as widgets, applications are fun, interactive tools designed for sharing and real-time play. Create quizzes like "How evil am I?" and compare answers with friends. Broadcast your up-to-the-minute moods with the Emote application. Just click the Add App button underneath the application, and you're on your way. But watch out: Applications can be highly addictive and are notorious for being major distractions.
There are literally thousands of applications to choose from. Most are free, though some require you to earn "spending" points (for example, sending a certain number of virtual gifts to friends in exchange for more spending points). Sending and receiving invitations to add widgets are great ways to figure out which ones you like and share favorites. You can also browse by category, search alphabetically or check out the daily Most Popular list to see what everyone else is using.
These are just a few of the thousands of applications you can use when you join Friendster.
Some of the top applications on Friendster include the following:
- Imeem: Similar to iTunes. You can add music, videos and photos to your profile.
- Chat: Gab live with friends a la instant messenger using text, webcam or call via phone anonymously.
- MyMiniLife: Build and decorate 3-D homes and compete with other users over whose digs are most fabulous.
Video and photo applications are also big attention-getters. Personalize and share favorite YouTube videos with SkinFlix. The Likeness app lets you find out which gorgeous celebrity you most resemble and compare with friends. Entertainment and music categories range from TV show fan groups like Addicted to… (e.g., "Heroes" or "Lost"), to gBox wishlist, where you can tell friends what music you like and they can send downloads as gifts.
Some of these applications were designed by Friendster, but many are created by outside developers or savvy Friendster users who make up something fun and then share it with friends. In November 2007, Friendster swung the door open for creativity when it went to an open platform system. Essentially, it's much easier for developers to create, upgrade and market their applications to the Friendster community. (For more on the open platform, see the Competition and Future of Friendster).
Can you have 150,000 friends? And what exactly is a "friend," anyway? Find out in the next section.
Friendster Connections: Six Degrees of Separation
Like a community, Friendster lets you connect with people you know and network out from there, building your web of contacts. Those connections are called friends. Think of it like the game six degrees of separation. If Mary is friends with David, and David is friends with Kumar, then Mary is connected to both David and Kumar. David is the link that binds them.
Here are some of the ways you can make and interact with friends:
- Invite someone to be your friend. Click Invite on your homepage to search for someone or click Add as Friend on that person's profile.
- Upload your e-mail address book. Friendster will automatically search those names to find out if any are existing Friendsters.
- Join groups that share your interests. The chocoholics group has nearly 45,000 members.
- Participate in forums to discuss anything from philosophy to cult movies.
- Pile on the applications. Posting bulletins is so yesterday. Comparing quiz results and voting on your friends' 3-D virtual homes is the new way to connect.
- Display Featured Friends on your profile. Not only does this let you give extra-special attention to your favorites, but it encourages them to do the same for you, boosting your visibility.
- Browse the Explore page. Great for random friend-making and voyeurism, it's a list of mosts: most-grabbed profiles, most popular groups and Fan Profiles.
There's no limit to how many friends you can have. They can be family, lifelong pals, classmates, business contacts or that random guy you bonded with over truffles on chocoholics. Now that you're popular, what do you do with it? Some Friendsters are just looking for a place to swap photos with friends and invite them to parties. Others may be looking for dates, while plenty of folks use Friendster to find jobs and network professionally.
As your network grows you may find yourself asking, are all these people really my friends? Uber-popular Karen Kong has 150,000 friends. Featured Friends lets you show off your BFFs, and sites like Facebook allow you to rank friends by who's smartest, funniest or most stylish. What actually constitutes a friend is subjective depending on your definition of the word, but most would agree it requires a certain level of intimacy you just can't achieve with 150,000 people. Even adding co-workers and acquaintances pushes the definition of friendship. Sites like professional social network LinkedIn offer a way to keep them separate (also a good idea if you're not too keen on your boss seeing your photos and posts). For now, ranking by Featured Friends is the clearest way to differentiate.
What if you decide someone's no longer a friend? Can you ever get rid of them? Say our friends Mary and Kumar have a fight and want to "break up." You can block people from accessing your profile by adding them to the Block Users tab. Bye-bye Kumar!
Blocking friends is one thing, but what about stalkers and Big Brother? Read on to find out if Friendster is sharing your personal details.
Friendster Safety Issues
As social networking has ballooned, so have concerns about privacy and online security. Friendster claims it "does not send spam or sell email addresses" [source: Friendster.com]. Certain personal data (name, e-mail address, birth date, etc.) is required for registration. As is common in the Internet world, Friendster may share non-identifiable data such as user patterns to help advertisers target their audiences more efficiently.
With the exception of a few basics viewable to all, who sees your profile is largely up to you. As we mentioned earlier, blocking individual users from accessing your profile is one way to avoid unwanted solicitation. Adjust privacy settings to filter out certain countries, limit access to "friends-only" or second-degree access (friends of friends). The public setting means it's viewable to all.
And what about lying, is that cool? In the past Friendster has discouraged the use of "Fakester" profiles, whether they were pet pages or rock bands. This tactic backfired when users complained and groups and fan pages became popular. Hence the creation of the Fan Profile.
The more pressing concern is safety. Providing misleading personal details or hiding under pseudonyms is a common tactic for spammers, marketers, stalkers and other predators. But the flip side works too for protecting oneself from those predators.
Concerns about youth safety may be less of an issue now that Friendster targets the 18+ audience, and you must be at least 16 to join. But it should be noted that there's really no surefire way to tell fact from fiction in the world of virtual personalities. The only confirmation Friendster requires is that you enter your birth date and year when you sign up, which can be fudged with a little basic math. (You must also confirm that you are eligible by agreeing to their terms of service by marking a check box.)
So is underage use a major problem for Friendster? There are probably some offenders. But applications like Classmates, which connects college students, and the ability to add school profiles to individual pages, makes Friendster far more useful for older kids and adults than the underage. And with so many other sites out there open to all ages, it's likely easier to just go somewhere else rather than fake 16+ status.
Next, is Friendster a has-been? And why in the world did it say no to $30 million from Google?
Competition and Future of Friendster
Despite essentially starting the social networking boom, Friendster has had a tough time in the industry. Like most non-subscription-based Web sites and social networks, Friendster aims to make money by selling advertising to companies who want to reach their users. But as of June 2007, Friendster still hasn't posted a profit, though it says it is close [source: Marshall].
In addition, as we mentioned in the introduction of this article, competitors like Facebook and Bebo have won over larger and younger fan bases. In 2003, MySpace blew past Friendster in the U.S. 18-29 age demographic [source: Rivlin]. Several factors may be to blame:
- Dead ends. Before the rise of interactive applications, there was nothing to do after you set up your profile, limiting incentive to return often.
- Small scale. Compared to MySpace, Friendster had more limited access to viewing profiles.
- Lack of vision. Users balked when "Fakester" profiles were removed. Those fake profiles would become groups on MySpace and eventually Fan Profiles on Friendster.
- Inferior technology. Industry insiders speculate the infrastructure couldn't handle the massive influx of users, causing technical glitches from too-slow page loads to frequent site outages that drove users away.
Can this maligned community recapture the magic? It may already have in Asia. According to TIME magazine, 89 percent of Friendster's traffic comes from Asia, while less than 10 percent of MySpace and Facebook users live there [source: Liu]. In fact, Friendster is the no. 1 social network in Asia, as of the date this article was written, according to comScore Media Metrix. Further expansion into China and other Asian markets is not far off, though Friendster isn't alone in tapping those wells.
By targeting the 18+ demographic and providing what it calls a "clean environment" (read: a less cluttered interface than MySpace), Friendster can focus on older users who may feel more comfortable with less flash. Applications such as quizzes and games help keep them coming back for more, and planned features like mobile texting aim to expand Friendster's reach into new markets and technologies.
The site has also improved technically and beefed up its efforts at getting page views. The aforementioned page load and outage issues have lessened, and it's easier to see who's in your network and how you're connected with a new and improved family tree "graph server" feature. E-mail notifications and live profile updates for new messages and friend activity generate more page views. Friendster reps say these upgrades are why the site's numbers jumped 40 percent in one month [source: Marshall].
Perhaps the most aggressive move Friendster has made toward redemption is opening its platform to application developers. This means that developers will have increased access and flexibility within the site, making it much easier to create rich, flashy applications that will still work with those that currently exist. Further tempting developers and their fan-drawing widgets, Friendster also announced it will not require revenue-sharing on those applications [source: Havenstein]. Some say it's too little too late, but in the end, it will likely come down to who draws the best, most popular applications.
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More Great Links
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