Friendster, Facebook and the Well: Rejecting anonymity
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, 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.
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.