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Friendster, Facebook and the Well: Rejecting anonymity

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:26 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Remember Friendster? No, me neither - it never made an impact in Europe. But this was the social network that promised to be the next big thing on the web, before first MySpace and then Facebook ran off with that title. In fact, it grew so fast that it fell over, its technology unable to cope with the surge in demand.

In my journey through the history of social networking I have met Friendster's founder, another man who can claim to have reinvented the way we communicate.

Jonathan Abrams

Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster

In 2002 Jonathan Abrams, a Canadian software engineer who'd already worked for major technology firms and started a couple of businesses of his own, found himself with time on his hands. It was the depths of the dotcom crash and he wondered whether his career had already peaked.

He told me that gave him the space to pursue his idea of a website that would enable his friends to run their social lives better. More and more of them were using online dating sites but he saw a major flaw - who knew who the people in the other end really were?

He decided that a place where you used your own name and managed your offline social life with an online presence would be attractive. "Before Friendster," he explained, "most of the way people used technology was anonymous and they were interacting in a virtual world completely disconnected from the real world. The difference with Friendster was you used your real name, real picture, and interacted with people you met in the real world."

He was right about the appeal of this merging of the real and virtual worlds. He started with his own friends on a password-protected site, but Friendster rapidly went viral. "People found the site fun and useful, they wanted their friends to be on it so they would bug their friends to join and then it grew exponentially."

Within a year it had attracted millions of users, lots of excited media coverage, and had won big-name venture-capital backing.

So what went wrong? Just about everything. Abrams fell out with his backers, the firm rapidly went through four chief executives, and there were huge technical problems. "The site barely worked for two years," is how the founder puts it.

Eventually he left, and has since been involved in a number of other start-ups. We met at his latest venture in San Francisco's SoMa district, an empty office suite with furniture in boxes, about to become the Founders' Den, a shared social space for entrepreneurs.

Friendster is still around, advertising itself as a social gaming platform, and apparently enjoying a measure of popularity in Asia, where the majority of its users are now based. But whatever happens to it from now on it has played one vital role - helping Facebook grow without major technical hiccups. David Kirkpatrick's fascinating book The Facebook Effect, he recounts how Mark Zuckerberg fretted about what had happened to Friendster and determined that his business would not allow technology failure to drive users away.

Stewart Brand

Online pioneer Stewart Brand who started the Whole Earth Catalogue

Earlier I had met a very different and much older online community pioneer. Stewart Brand is something of a legend in the Californian counterculture movement, the man who started the Whole Earth Catalogue, a kind of analogue Facebook group for eco-types, and then took it online with The Well, the Whole Earth 'lectronic Link.

But what struck me was that the very principles that were later to prove successful at Friendster and Facebook - demanding that members used their real names, mixing offline and online networks - had been tried out in the 1980s at The Well.

Because Stewart Brand decided that the new online community was going to reject the anonymity that was then the norm on bulletin boards and other early computer forums. "This was politically against the grain," he told me. "The whole idea was that anonymity freed people to say important stuff and all I could see was that anonymity freed people to insult each other without retribution and they did so with abandon. Very responsible corporate people and scientists, when they had the opportunity to speak anonymously they did so with such viciousness and ferocity, it took my breath away."

Soon the new online community was thriving, its members debating everything from the meaning of life to the nature of sexuality to the merits of different computer operating systems - and then meeting up in the real world to continue the conversations.

This community wasn't the Garden of Eden - Stewart Brand and other leaders had to try to control the behaviour of "trolls" who began to infest some of the conversations - but it proved sustainable, and is still around 25 years after its birth.

You might think that someone of Stewart Brand's generation and political background would look askance at the development of Facebook, with its mostly trivial content and its increasingly commercial nature. Not a bit of it

"Facebook is fantastic," he told me, explaining that he saw some of the same principles in action under Mark Zuckerberg that had governed The Well: "I'm really impressed at a lot of the instincts that Zuckerberg has had. Taking non-anonymity as an absolutely fundamental value of his company and thereby beating off the competition. A Facebook identity is one of the most valuable things his company offers. The lack of anonymity is what gives it value."

On the internet nobody knows you're a dog, according to the famous cartoon in the New Yorker. But, if you were to believe the social networking pioneers, Fido would be better off coming clean about his idenitity on his Facebook profile.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rory, you've discovered a fascinating alignment of views between different generations here, on the issue of anonymity. I wonder if Brand feels any reservations about the flip-side of using your own identity - potential loss of privacy. It's such a fine balance, though I tend to prefer using real identities.

  • Comment number 2.

    Remember WBS?

    This early pioneer used an HTML chat that scrolled continuously (more or less) and allowed users to add images and colours and fonts to their posts.

    But the big thing was that users also got personal web space with an easy to use web editor. People used this for everything from amazing personal profiles to hand-crafted blogs.

    The big innovation, however, was that people used to create their own communities this way. They would list their friends, create pages at all the free services (xoom, fortune city, tripod, chez), use the chat services to create private groups, post news and comment, review films, list the things they liked and so on. They would add guest books using the free services to attract new people in and to allow commenting on their page. Some of these networks were probably huge - there was no real way of monitoring it as they were created without a defined system, but just by people linking to each other. But I remember for fun starting to browse link to link on friends pages and quickly realising that the trail was endless.

    I had my own little network page which I have found on the Way Back Machine. (I wont put the link up - it was rather embarrassing)

    One of the links on the network page was to the actual community I set up. Every person had their own house on a webpage that you could click to find out more about them. All hand written - no database. I think I had 100 members, and I was one of the tiny link pages! That page was first put up in 1997, I think.

    So, when you use any of the modern social networking system, they are nothing new - they just formalised what huge numbers of people were creating for themselves. Actually, I think the modern systems are more boring and bland as they all look the same!

    One link I notice on my network page is to a page I wrote about the Future of the Web. That talked about how people would browse into a 3d world where they could shop, chat with each other, fly around and so on. Sadly, the page seems to be no longer around, so I cannot prove what was on it now - but I wrote that paper in 1997. I was told it was a pile of impossible rubbish by a couple of IT companies I approached about it. Should have ignored them!

  • Comment number 3.

    It's nonsense to suggest that Facebook rejects anonymity: I've seen dozens of profiles of people with pseudonyms. Whether that's in Facebook's rules or not is irrelevant: they have no way of actually checking. In any case, a number of well-known authors who write under pseudonyms have FB profiles, and they seem to be allowed to get away with it, despite FB insisting one uses one's real name. Clearly one rule for some, and a different rule for others.

  • Comment number 4.


    Yes, many do use fake names, but I would think that is a minority since it sort of breaks what Facebook is for and the user would find that less than useful.

    This has always been the whole problem with the privacy issue with Facebook. The entire idea is that you join it so that people CAN find you easily. Since few people have unique names (I do, strangely, but I am a real rarity) you need to put up extra info, photo, place of work, school, so that you can be identified from the thousands of other John Smiths out there.

    As for authors, you have that mixed up. Facebook does not insist you use the name that is on your Birth Certificate, but the name you are known by (what they call, unhelpfully, your "real" name) so that your friends (or fans) can find you. Remember that in the UK you can legally call yourself anything you like - you dont have to get things changed by a formal process, that is a myth. (In practice it is complicated and impractical to just call yourself what you like, but quite legal)

    The actual rule is "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission." The name you are commonly known by is not false information.

    You will also find that many of the entries for authors on there are in fact fan pages or linked to their wikipedia entry, rather than a personal page. Where it is a personal page because they like to keep in touch with their fans and will, therefore, use their pseudonym since it is the name they are known by. Quite acceptable under Facebook rules as long as they then don't have a second profile under another name.

  • Comment number 5.


    Alas, I wish it were so. A very good friend of mine had his profile removed by FB, because the name he has been known by for the last 35 years, both amongst his friends and within his industry, was "not a real name". Despite many instances of proof, including photos of his published magazine column using that name, amongst other credits, FB refused to reinstate it.



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