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Social Networking: Friended

Bandwidth, digital cameras, and a hunger for connectedness have created a virtual dinner party

6 min read
Illustration by Frank Chimero
Illustration: Frank Chimero

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Top 11 Technologies of the Decade

imgIllustration: Frank Chimero

A decade ago, it might have taken a new person in town months to make contacts, find places to hang out, and meet like-minded people. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, you can get the job done through social networking—a communications revolution that began in fits and starts in the late 1990s and reached recognizable form in March of 2003, with the public launch of Friendster.

“The idea was to have the Internet do the work of a dinner party,” says Kent Lindstrom, a former Friendster CEO. A user could set up a profile, with personal facts and a picture, and invite friends to join. Friendster’s servers would then generate a continually updated list of her friends as well as her friends’ friends, mapping relationships out to four degrees of separation. Within nine months, Friendster had a million members.

Around that time, Fortune magazine prophesied, “There may be a new kind of Internet emerging—one more about connecting people to people than people to websites.” Indeed, such an Internet has emerged, though, as so often is the case, the first movers have been left behind. The big winner has been Facebook, founded less than a year after Friendster went public. Facebook has 540 million users who spend about 700 billion minutes on the site every month; if it were a country, it’d be the third most populous in the world.

You can live much of your life in that strange, virtual country. Matthias Galica, 26, founded ShareSquare in May 2010 to enable users to print bar codes to “geotag” objects in the real world so they could be followed in the virtual one. The day he moved the business into a loft in downtown Los Angeles, he got an e-mail message through his Facebook account from one of his more than 1400 “Facebook friends” inviting him to join the Facebook group DTLA.

He clicked the “Accept Invitation” icon, which connected him instantly to hundreds of like-minded Los Angelenos. Later that night, at a concert, he used his iPhone to log into Foursquare, a friend-locator service, which automatically posted the message “Matthias just checked-in @Shrine Auditorium” to his Facebook page, prompting an impromptu get-together with another member of DTLA.

“Connections that would’ve taken months now happen in a space of hours,” Galica remarks.

Palo Alto, Calif.

Launched in 2005 by Gina Bianchini and Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen, Ning is betting on small, exclusive networks. Already the company hosts 2 million customized social networks, including Shred or Die, for extreme skateboarders, and GovLoop, for anyone working in government.


Social networks are proving to be gold mines for predicting human behavior. In a proof-of-concept study, scientists at HP Labs used movie chitchat on Twitter to accurately predict box office hits. And the police department of Richmond, Va., is now using network-analysis software to monitor Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter for evidence of crime incubators, such as rowdy parties.

This is exactly the kind of life promoted by Friendster, which was left in the dust by MySpace, which was lapped by Facebook. Yet even Friendster climbed up on the shoulders of still-earlier pioneers. The most notable was Sixdegrees, arguably the first true social network. Twenty-eight-year-old New York businessman Andrew Weinreich launched Sixdegrees at a party in 1997, announcing that “with the click of a button,” the site would revolutionize human networking. Like Friendster, Sixdegrees let users identify their friends, their friends’ friends, and so forth. At its peak in 1999, it had attracted 3.5 million members.

But each of these early actors came too early or learned a critical lesson too late to dominate. For Sixdegrees, the major flaw was the absence of photographs. “We had letters coming in all the time asking, ‘If I mail in a picture, can you scan it for me and put my picture on your site?’” Weinreich recalls.

Friendster and its rivals came around at just the right time. Point-and-shoot cameras were ubiquitous. Broadband was cheap and available. Users could be sure that the friends they invited to see their profiles and chat online had high-speed Internet connections and plenty of photos to share.

But Friendster made a single, master mistake: It took on customers faster than it could manage them. By the end of 2003, Friendster was acquiring some 9500 users a day, and the company was struggling to buy enough servers to keep up with the growth. Users complained that their home pages regularly took more than a minute to load.

Their frustration paved the way for MySpace, a Los Angeles start-up founded by hackers Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson. They did away with pesky friend calculations and instead let users cruise the entire public site, eavesdrop on strangers, create bizarre “fakester” profiles—notably those of Jesus and of the Burger King—and make their own connections. MySpace’s meteoric success (72 million members in 70 countries by 2007) led to a boom of businesses that New York University social-software analyst Clay Shirky labeled “YASNS,” as in “Yet Another Social Networking Service.”

For instance, there’s the messaging service Tencent QQ, which is popular in China; Google’s Orkut, which is popular in Brazil; and Twitter, a blogging network that limits posts to 140 characters, which is popular just about everywhere. There’s Flickr for photo sharing and YouTube for video sharing. There’s LinkedIn for job networking and Classmates for finding long-lost school friends. And there’s a whole host of niche networks: Coastr for beer aficionados, Goodreads for bookworms, ResearchGATE for scientists, and Dogster for dog lovers.

The reign of MySpace, however, didn’t last long. By September 2009, the company could claim just 30 percent of the American social-networking market, down from 67 percent the year before, according to the research firm Hitwise. Its biggest mistake was losing control of the site’s usability. Rather than develop tools that would help users organize the vast amounts of shared information, MySpace dumped all its resources into new features it thought would drive traffic: bulletin boards, job listings, horoscopes, even a YouTube-esque video-sharing service called MySpaceTV. The site got so cluttered that many users left to look for something simpler.

Facebook conquered in part because it took to heart the lessons of its predecessors’ mistakes. For instance, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, expanded from the company’s base at Harvard by adding one university at a time, ensuring that no new customers would come online until the servers could handle the additional traffic.

Facebook also lured Internet users with its sleek, easy-to-use interface and engineering wizardry. One of its most innovative features was Multi-Feed, which searches your friends’ databases for new updates and streams them to your home page as a continuous news feed. Facebook now contends with some 30 billion shared updates a month—a monumental processing feat that requires tens of thousands of servers.

When the feed was introduced, some veteran users derided it as an intrusive assault on their privacy. But most of them stayed to gawk, and many new users poured in because of it. Each new attempt to expand Facebook’s reach has prompted renewed criticism that the company allows users too little control over their own data.

Rival sites have rushed to fill the possible privacy gap. Diaspora, a New York University student-built network, lets users program their own servers rather than rely on a centralized system. Ning, based in Palo Alto, Calif., offers a do-it-yourself social-networking platform for tight-knit communities. Next up could be Google Me, the search giant’s most recent foray into the social-networking business. However, it seems that Facebook is here to stay.

“Their scale makes them formidable,” says Weinreich, who believes that Zuckerberg has successfully constructed the ultimate “social graph”—a term for the web of relationships the 26-year-old billionaire popularized in May 2007, when he announced to a warehouse full of programmers in San Francisco that he was opening up Facebook’s infrastructure to anyone wanting to run programs on it. Little more than three years later, Facebook’s social graph has become a powerful business platform. Independent software developers have coded a cumulative 550 000 applications for Facebook users. Some are absurd. SuperPoke, for example, lets users virtually “kiss” or “spank” their friends. Others, particularly multiplayer games, such as Zynga’s Mafia Wars and FarmVille, have cultivated multimillion-dollar businesses.

To spread Facebook’s influence even further, its engineers created Facebook Connect, a software-to-software communication tool (an application programming interface, or API) that lets Facebook users log in to their iPhones or other Web sites—the news aggregator Digg, for example—with their Facebook identities.

Joe Stump, the chief technology officer of SimpleGeo, which helps location-based services collect and manage data connected to places, predicts that soon your Facebook identity will follow you wherever you go. You’ll use it to decide, based on friends’ recommendations, which book to buy or which doctor to see. It’s likely, then, that geo-networking apps such as Foursquare and its closest competitor, Gowalla, will be the next big thing online.

Again, it will be the mass adoption of new consumer technologies—this time, smartphones and cloud computing—that will allow people to collect and compute vast amounts of data about places and things. The trend has already begun. “We’re heading into a third phase of the Web,” Stump says.

The webs between humans and machines, and between humans and the people they trust, have already been spun. The Web of the future will instead connect our physical world with our virtual one, enabling our online social interactions to give us valuable insights into our off-line lives.

For all of IEEE Spectrum’s Top 11 Technologies of the Decade, visit the special report.

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