Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Where did Friendster go wrong?

In my personal opinion - which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't amount to much - one of the most important things one can do as an entrepreneur is to learn from past mistakes. Not mistakes of one's own doing, but rather from the mistakes of the countless entrepreneurs that came before us.

"Standing on the shoulders of giants" is a phrase that comes to mind.

Now we all know of the well documented technology problems over at Friendster, along with the internal VC and management conflicts - lessons to be learned from those two issues alone but we need to dig deeper here.

Here was one of the very first large scale social networks - this company had the world in the palm of its hands but somehow watched it all slip away (like my shot at becoming a professional basketball player when I never grew taller than 5'11'').

And while this company is starting to pick itself up by its boot straps it still has never manged to "get it right" -- what are they doing wrong?

Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Poor Information Architecture and Usability

I've brought this up to a number of people and while some agreed, there were many who didn't. But I really stand behind this one and I'll talk about why.

First off, why do ads take up almost a third of the profile screen? They have a massive leader board at the very top and then two big boxes on the right. I can see how that may benefit the bottom line but how does it add value to a user's social networking experience?

And have you ever tried using Friendster's photo feature? Forget the fact that you still can't tag other people in photos, click on a photo to go to the next one, etc... those things are annoying enough, but have you ever noticed this:

If you hit the back button in your browser while looking at an individual photo it'll take you right back to the gallery view of all of the photos (usually causing me to lose my place, say "Oh fuck it" and go elsewhere). The site is essentially forcing us to go against conventional wisdom in favor of Friendster's desire to use AJAX in their code - sorry guys, big "no no".

The list goes on but I'll stop here.

2. Day Late and a Dollar Short

Contrary to popular belief, Facebook didn't originate the idea of a news feed in a social network. The originator of social networks did - that's right, in case you forgot, Friendster was the first to offer users a peek at what their contacts had been up to on the site.

However, until recently the social news feed wasn't very "social". Let me explain...

When Friendster first released this feature it would simply tell me that one of my friends added a new friend, but it wouldn't say who. It would tell me my friend added a new photo, but it wouldn't show it to me. It would tell me they got a new comment but not tell who wrote it and what it said.

Essentially, the system was designed to promote click-throughs, page views and revenue. It wasn't designed to increase the utility of the site - again, another big "no no".

They did finally started to head in the right direction recently - now I can at least see who my friends are becoming friends with - the comments and photos are still off the mark though.

By releasing a half-assed feature that was meant to increase revenue and not utility, Friendster was once again passed over and Facebook reaped all the glory and benefits of the social news feed.

3. No Platform, No Traction

My friends are probably sick of hearing this one but history has proven that the companies who help other companies make money are dramatically more likely to succeed than those who don't.

Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Google, MySpace, Facebook - what do they have in common?

They all created a platform that allowed other individuals and companies to make money.

Microsoft allowed software vendors to create software that could be marketed and sold to millions of users on a standard operating system.

Wal-Mart made it so people from all walks of life could afford to buy DVD players and TV sets.

Google helped start-ups monetize their traffic and gave marketers the ability to advertise in every corner of the web.

MySpace and Facebook both allowed application developers to piggy-back their networks and market their wares in a viral manner - Facebook is unarguably doing a better job at this than MySpace which is why I think they'll eventually "win" but I'll save this argument for another time.

Friendster just hasn't caught onto this concept - they're operating a closed social network (which is mediocre at best) and not allowing for the third "C" in Hagel's "3 C's" of the web. They have the Content, they have the Community but they just don't have the Commerce!


And the moral of the story kids: Don't be a "Friendster"... j/k ;)

But in all seriousness, these are the things that go through my head as I toil away in my crappy office space building my latest company.

How can I make my web application as easy to use as possible? How can I reduce friction, clutter, excess, etc.? How can I make this site as elegant as the iPod?

How can I use the technology I'm building to solve a real problem for people - how can it become a utility for my target audience?

How can I give other people the opportunity to benefit from this service monetarily?

Tough questions - but I think if we keep them in mind we'll at least avoid many of the mistakes made by those that came before us.

And those are my two pennies for the day!

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