An example Friendster profile circa November 2003 via Wayback Machine
I guess the brisk march of technology is going to make all us look ridiculous eventually, so it’s really to the New York Times’s credit that its first article on social networks looks as good as it does now, 10 years after it was first published.
Sure, the words “social network” appeared in the paper earlier than that as a reference to, I don’t know, people or something. But an article from November 27, 2003 by Michael Erard is the earliest reference to online social networks that I found. Naturally, it’s an article about Friendster, and it mostly talks about Burning Man.
Under the headline “Decoding the New Cues In Online Society,” 2003 readers were introduced to Danah Boyd, then a sociology grad student at Berkeley, and the website Friendster. Boyd is described as “a sociologist among geeks and a geek among sociologists” and she is charged with describing Friendster:
Ms. Boyd explained Friendster this way: ''It allows you to purposely say who the people in your world are and to allow them to see each other, through a connection of you.'' An individual registered at Friendster has a home page with photos, a brief profile and photos of people to whom they have agreed to link. That person can then browse his or her network or search it for dates or activity partners.
That sounds nice, right? We all like dates and activity partners. But hold the phone, Casanova. This online society has new cues that need decoding. ''What social software like Friendster does is collapse our networks in ways we're not used to,'' Boyd warns. Like a 25-year-old high school teacher and Burning Man enthusiast who has to turn down friendships with her students and remove anything that could be interpreted as a reference to drugs.
Other problems that emerged because of social media have been there since the beginning too. The article warns about catfishing, albeit under the name “Fakesters,” and talks about a marketing consultant who invented a woman.
'We made her sort of confident, sort of sexy, all these things we wanted in a friend.'' Mr. Gartner put up a photo of an ex-girlfriend's midriff and made Sarah Tuttle a yoga instructor because, he said, ''everybody in San Francisco is a yoga instructor.''
The consultant, after having to rebuff several Scrabble-based advances by the menfolk of Friendster, eventually shut down Sarah Tuttle. Note that they used the midriff of an ex-girlfriend—sort of revenge porn in a germinal state.
But far and away the most fascinating part of article is the list of all the social networks that were popular at the time. There’s no Facebook, no Twitter; there is however, LinkedIn, which at the time didn’t include photos on profiles.
But there were a ton on the list that I didn’t recognize at all. While the Times didn’t hyperlink anything in the article, it did list the URLs, which in itself is enough to give you a portal to another time.
Curious how these sites look today, I decided to jump back a decade. I turned on some Cursive and Postal Service to set the mood—earnestness was all the rage back then—and social networked like it was 2003.
How the mighty have fallen
Which is to say that I tried to. INWYK.COM or itsnotwhatyouknow.com was once a dating and high school-friend finding site, but it’s now a landing page trying to sell that domain. Everyonesconnected.com is a cheap-looking portal for “Freesearchresults,” and sona.com is basically the same. Trying to visit TICKLE at emode.com doesn’t even go anywhere. The grass has grown over these cities and no evidence of their once, no-doubt vibrant online society remains.
There are ruins of other websites though, that are like the internet equivalents of Gary, Indiana—the industry has long departed but residents remain.
Tribe.net’s PR email doesn’t go anywhere anymore, but there’s evidence that the site is still occupied. Tribes, proto-subreddits, have been formed as recently as last year, when someone formed a “Web Design Service” in September. Events are still posted on the New York Tribe site, albeit by what appears to be promoting services that either don’t know or don’t care that they’re doing the cyber equivalent of shouting into an empty room.
I actually had several MySpace accounts as they were a must for any local band at the time, but just as people left for Facebook, the music left for Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Visiting MySpace now, you can log-in with Facebook or Twitter, because apparently even in Silicon Valley its true that if you can’t beat ‘em, you gotta join ‘em. In 2003, the Times warned that MySpace “profiles include sexual information, sometimes explicit,” so I decide it’s best to move on.
I also sign up for YAFRO, which meant using my Facebook profile to access a dating app from the creators of “HotorNot.com." It immediately guessed that I want to make friends with a girl 18-32, and offers a low-pixel picture of a girl in a bikini. It tells me we don’t share any friends or interests, and I decide that a low-resolution person I have nothing in common with doesn’t really attract me, and wonder if Grindr/Tinder knows that this exists.
You can still sign up for Ryze.com, a one-time business site that, like Twitter, had uni-directiontional networking. It seems like the only person left on Ryze is named Nancy Dubb, who works PR in California, and she is the only person posting events on the public events calendar. It kept trying to get me to upgrade my account, which costs $10 a month, so leave Nancy, who has been there since 2002 and probably will be for life.
Finally I revisit the one-time social media leader, Friendster. It is now a Malaysian gaming site. I think about playing Howzat Cricket, but doing so requires that I surrender all of my Facebook friends to Friendster, so I don’t. Apparently, Friendster has over 115 million registered users and 90 percent of them are in Asia. I guess Friendster is sort of like David Hasselhoff—finding a second life and greater fame overseas.
Social networks are a lot like celebrities. Their power comes from people thinking about them. Sometimes rebranding and relaunching works, other times once the zeitgeist moves on, it moves on. I’m sure people thought Friendster was a permanent part of life, and I’m sure to someone in Indonesia it still does. But in America, it’s pretty much a punch line.
And there, but for the grace of their design, goes Facebook.