According to MySpace founder Brad Greenspan, when eUniverse launched MySpace on Aug. 15, 2003, the social network to beat was Friendster.com. In an online book about MySpace’s history, Greenspan said he was “bombarded” with articles about Friendster’s success before finally deciding his company could easily copy the site to create a competitor.
Times have changed. Today, MySpace is said by some to be America’s most popular Internet destination. Certainly it leads all social networks.
But since last summer, one-time market leader Friendster has been the steady recipient of good news from the U.S. Patent Office, which has awarded the company with patents that make clear Friendster’s crucial role in developing the very idea of an online social network. In other good news for the site, Friendster recently signed a search and advertising deal with Google. The company hopes profitability is just around the corner.
Friendster President Kent Lindstrom manages the day-to-day business operations at the company. Since joining the company in 2002 as one of its first employees, Lindstrom has served as its CFO from March 2003 to January 2006 before taking over as president.
Internetnews.com spoke to Lindstrom about Facebook, MySpace and the direction his own social network is headed.
Q: Who’s using social networks and why?
What’s going on in college for Facebook is people are just scared of being out of touch. And so their whole profile is where they’re going to be every minute of the day. They just don’t want to miss anything.
In high school they’re trying to establish status within social groups. Just like you’ve always done in high school, but the way they’re doing is going online and creating fake friendships that are influencing their real-world friendships. You’re this wimpy guy, but people go to your profile and you’re friends with some heavy-metal band and you’re having some intense discussions with some motorcycle dude in New York.
People look at you and it reveals something about you maybe they didn’t know. With the high school kids there’s a lot more self-expression. They’re trying on different skins.
Post-college you get a lot more practical. You need to meet new people. You have friends you want to keep in touch with. That kind of thing is what emerges. That’s the stodgy, boring piece we focus on.
Q: What’s useful about social networks for the post-college crowd?
There’s this really hard real-world problem. You want to meet new people, but the traditional go to a bar or wait until there’s a dinner party is incredibly inefficient. By putting everybody online and letting you explore that on your own time and make connections, it’s really efficient.
It’s always a very efficient way to keep up asynchronously with 30 or 40 friends. With a social network, rather than calling everybody everyday you get a little summary of what’s going on with that person. The way people express what’s going on with them in the online world is they have a profile, they have blogs and they have photos to track their lives.
Q: Some users call MySpace a “zit full of brand advertising puss” How does Friendster avoid that unfortunate description while still making money?
There’s a pretty simple reality. People under 35 are not watching TV in nearly the numbers they were 10 years ago, and there are billions of dollars that have always been spent to reach those people.
Back in the day, when there was a very successful detective show on TV, Proctor and Gamble didn’t figure out how they could work their product into the story line. They didn’t get all hung up on the fact that it was a detective show. They said: “We sell soap. The people are there. We’ve got an ad.”
The same thing works in social networking. It’s like: You’ve got an eyeball. We’re a marketer. We know what to do. It’s funny that the Internet industry thinks they’re going to solve this advertising issue that Proctor and Gamble nailed about 20 years ago.
Q: What are your plans for the patents you’ve been awarded?
We don’t know exactly. We’re doing what Amazon does and Google does and Yahoo does. We’re in the space and we’re a thought leader. We’re just going to build a patent portfolio. Eventually we’ll either license it or get acquired by somebody who licenses it is the logical path.
Q: Where are we going with all this? What will social networks be in 10 years?
It’s actually a pretty simple thing. It’s the same stuff people have been doing on the Web for five years, it’s just a couple pieces got put together. You could have uploaded all your photos onto Snapfish six years ago and sent them to your friends. It just took that little tweak of, “No, your friends should be able to see it when your friends upload your photo.”
I think what you’ll see in two years is social networks breaking out into a few big networks. I don’t buy the idea that there’s going to be lots of little specialized social networks. There will probably be a big media-centric one like MySpace, and probably a college one like Facebook. We want to be the young-adult social network. It’ll be like TV stations or IM: three or four big ones and you’ll still be using the same one you started with ten years ago.
Q: Has Friendster’s time come and gone?
Well, a lot of businesses go through that. Apple Computer has done that. It happens. But we’ve never been bigger. It just happens that we’re in a space where MySpace and Facebook have never been bigger two times over. But measured by any metric, we’re a top 40 Web site.
We think we’re ready for our next phase. We’re focused on an area nobody else is focused on. We’re not what we were in 2003, but we don’t want to be what we were in 2003.