September 16, 2003
The Idiot Savant (Friendster Triumphant)
There is a bit of a murmur in the social software going on about Friendster declining or being replaced. "We can literally watch the erosion of these centralized services - in front of our eyes" says Marc Canter, while danah boyd motions "One year from now, i suspect that the current incarnation of Friendster will have faded from people's memories, a fad that was fun to play with and to find people." Meanwhile on the streets I hear a small buzz, people are thinking of leaving Friendster, it eats up too much time... Has Friendster peaked, a few months of real popularity and then goodbye, on to the next breed of online hula hoop? My gut says no, for all the foolishness of its management, I think Friendster is unfortunately going to be dominating the social network scene for at least a few years. Perhaps its even a social software Microsoft in the making, although its doubtful it can dominate with a Bill Gates brutality. The reason? To break it down to two words, Metcalfe's Law.
Now Metcalfe's Law actually isn't much of a law, its a conjecture that, at the moment, is pretty reasonably supported by empirical evidence. What it says is that the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of members in the network. Now Friendster's network is shockingly large. Close to 2 million accounts at the moment, and still growing fast (exponentially?). If Metcalfe's law is even close to true, the value of the Friendster network is increasing tremendously each day. And quite honestly I just don't see how any competitor is going to be able to build up a comparable network. People don't seem to realize what a feat Friendster accomplished in bringing together such a wide array of social groups. I've never even bothered to invite people into Friendster and yet I'm networked in to a dozen or so scenes I've graced at various times in my life. High school, college, various types of music, graphic design, social software, cities I've visited, etc, etc. Its a huge range of people and its going to the be damn hard to get them all together anywhere else in the near future.
There must be a dozen companies gunning to be the next Friendster. I managed to bother with one, Tribe.net. Quite honestly the only reason I put any time into it was that I participated in a focus group with them and liked what they were trying to do. But without that connection I never would have taken the effort, and that's a big issue. Friendster somehow got people take the time to sign up and build profiles, something that's not nearly as easy as it sounds. With Tribe I actually invited a bunch of people, and a few actually set up accounts. But none stayed around. My network is dead. Now I don't think Tribe is going to fail per se, it has its own sort of scene going on. But I just don't see it reaching close to Friendster levels, its just another community site, and god knows how many of those now exist online. Its just not worth the effort for enough people to join up.
Its worth taking a little time and looking at what might have made Friendster so successful. How did this company go from nothing to the hottest thing on the internet, with millions users, in a matter of a year? Its not the first mover advantage, Six Degrees predates it by a few years. And its not the brilliant management, Friendster CEO Jonathan Abrams has made some seemingly retarded business decisions. So much so that I think he qualifies as an idiot savant, blindly building a wild success without the remotest understanding of what is actually driving that success.
Lets start with the design, which is quite unintentionally brilliant. By any traditional graphic design standard Friendster rates pretty poor, a three minute logo, and a few boxes on screen populated by data. But its all pale gray and white while a lot of those boxes happen to be filled with colorful pictures. The result is a user experience focused almost solely around pictures of your friends. And as my friend Adam Greenfield has pointed out, these pictures are Friendster's real strength. Legal scholar/open source activist Eben Moglin once dismissed all graphical user interfaces as being "point and grunt". Now I disagree with him on that particular issue, but its quite a choice phrase for Friendster. It truly has created a point and grunt interface, see a friend or pretty face, point, grunt, click, see another shiny face, grunt... You can practically be illiterate and navigate the site, airport sign designers take note.
Well the truth is the "point and grunt interface" is a bit of hyperbole, in order to make friends and send messages you need to read. In fact other then clicking on the faces, all the navigation is text based. This is not a site designed by someone deliberately trying to make an non textual navigation system. Its a site built by someone who has unknowing stumbled into a great design. Perhaps the best indicator of it all? The logo. Its up there with an Ed Wood movie in the so bad its good category. Three minutes in Illustrator to make a smiley face and type treatment. If I where to hazard a guess, I'd say this is, or at least was once considered, a temporary logo. A logo that perhaps the designer was embarrassed of. One that was made very discreet, as to not call attention to itself. And that's where the brilliance kicks in.
Pay any actual attention to the Friendster logo and you might think its a joke, its hands down bad. Its also light gray and tucked in the corner, where it gets ignored by the conscious mind. But its there and the unconscious might notice. When the unconscious sees it, a message gets transmitted, this is a goofy place the smiley face says: "Be happy, smile, feel free to toss up any silly thing you've created."
And the members have. Friendster profiles are a space of creative flow. People have signed up en mass and have fun with the system. It feels good, connect with friends and act foolish. Jonathan Abrams may hate the creative output of "fakesters" the imaginary characters populating Friendster, but the site design is subtly encouraging the silliest of behavior. And that gives it a huge advantage over the rest of the social software mob, people feel at home in Friendster.
The idiot savantness doesn't stop though. Jonathan Abrams must have been uncomfortable with the directions his creation was moving, the creativity of fakesters triggered something negative in the man. This summer Friendster declared war on its users, fake characters were deleted by the gigabyte, trucked off to a digital gas chamber without as much as a good bye. Despite the smiley face logo the site was supposed to be about "serious" dating, and the fake characters made a mockery of that. In effect the CEO of Friendster declared war on his most fanatical users. Not exactly a move from a business school textbook. In fact one might call it retarded, the people who use your product the most should be listened to and given respect, they are valued customers.
But no, this is social software, the usual rules don't apply. I'm beginning to suspect that the fakester war, was yet another unwittingly brilliant move on Abrams part. Why? Because it made things exciting, it stirred up the pot and added drama to the mix. It made it more then software, something more like a game, something to be passionate about. Making something illegal makes it more desirable, and people are drawn toward passion. Friendster is buzzing with this energy and the "war" just upped the supply. Without the war the fakesters would gradually have become background noise, and they still will. But for a crucial period of time the war provided publicity and sparked passion, and that's good business.
The mildly sleazy sign up page for the service works in a similar manner. Internet dating is going mainstream but is still has a stigma attached. Friendster walks the middle perfectly, its a touch elicit and perhaps a little embarrassing at first. But not enough to turn away major amounts of people, instead it charges up the atmosphere a bit.
Now of course all this would be irrelevant if the product wasn't good. Computer enhanced social networking is a valuable space and Friendster is an acceptable piece of software. But the key is in Metcalfe's law. The more people are in the network the dramatically more valuable it is. Friendster has done a brilliant job building a huge network, its a social software diamond mine. Attracting users is a hard task, and Friendster has done it in spades. Further more each time a user commits energy into Friendster the odds of them replicating that effort elsewhere go down. Can a competitor build a network so rich and interwoven? Sure someday, but I suspect it will be quite a while before the Friendster domination subsides.Posted by William Blaze at September 16, 2003 03:28 PM | TrackBack