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Six Degrees of Procrastination

Social networking might be the next big dotcom bubble to explode, and Friendster is the bubble machine. Meet Jonathan Abrams, high tech's Lawrence Welk and Chuck Woolery.

By Todd Inoue

"Friends, how many of us have them? Friends, ones we can depend on?"
--Whodini, "Friends"

MIKE PARK doesn't need any more friends. As founder of Asian Man Records, a solo musician and community activist, he has trouble keeping in touch with the ones he's already got. Recently, however, Mike's social circle has exploded. In September 2003, he typed Friendster.com into his web browser, and online life for him hasn't been the same since.

For those who aren't cultural junkies: Friendster is an online community that allows people to create a social network through the friends they already have. Visitors create a personal profile, invite other friends to join and can then view the profiles of the friends of friends. Friendster's original intent was to take the sleaze factor out of online dating, but it has emerged to become 2003's hottest website and online hangout spot.

The day after signing on, Park embarked on an eight-hour Friendster jag, typing in the names of friends randomly, surfing profiles and sending and approving Friendster requests. In two weeks, his list of Friendster friends ballooned to 150.

"I'm addicted," Park admits. "Whoever came up with this is a genius."

Friendster founder and CEO Jonathan Abrams describes his brainchild in slightly more modest terms.

"I wanted to create an alternative for people who prefer a different approach," he says. "There's a social context. It's collaborative. You do it with your friends. You don't use a pseudonym. It's not as anonymous. Whether they make new friends, catch up with old friends, learn more about distant friends or make new romantic connections--that's what I hope they do."

Matching Match: Since opening its beta site in March 2003, Friendster's traffic rank (red line) approaches that of Match.com (blue line), which launched in 1995, according to Alexa Web Search.

Blow-Up Factor

Friendster is still in beta mode, and the official launch date keeps getting pushed back, but the 7-month-old Sunnyvale-based website has already split the world into two types of people: those who are on Friendster and those about to break down and sign up.

The website counts more than 2 million sign-ups in its easy-to-navigate matrix. According to Internet measuring firm Nielsen/NetRatings, Friendster logged 532,000 visitors in June, 675,000 in July and 961,000 in August. According to the Alexa rating service, it's already one of the Top 100 most visited English language sites on the web. (Match.com is at No. 23.)

For now, Friendster is free. Once you log in, you voluntarily create a Friendster profile with answers to questions about age, occupation, marital status, general interests, music, books, movies and television shows. You invite friends to join your "personal network," and they send messages and write "testimonials" about you. The addictive quotient comes in surfing others' profiles--ex-lovers, high school drinking buddies, creepy college roommates, hot co-workers from the past, second and third cousins twice removed--and then discovering who they're connected to. It's part sophisticated dating site, part high-tech stalking tool, part high school dick-measuring contest and 100 percent guilty pleasure.

Sound creepy? Nefarious? A little, but while other dating sites are the online equivalent of a meat market, Friendster is the backyard barbeque. Its name and happy-face logo are low-key casual. You only interact with folks known to you, or just a couple of Friendster degrees of separation away.

But there's another reason to check out Friendster: social networking. Daniel Watts, a candidate for governor of California from San Jose, posted a Friendster profile. He has used the site to hook up with a freelance photographer in the Bay Area to do a photo shoot, and a couple of friends who didn't otherwise know he was running found out by looking at Watts' Friendster profile. "It's definitely helped get the word out," he says.

Just within my own Friendster stratosphere, my homey Brandon was selling off his collection of '80s records, and I pulled a Thompson Twins 12-incher off his list. Eric Fanali, of Outhouse and Grand Fanali Presents fame, had some Radiohead tickets going at face value. Diane Payes, a publicist with ABB Records in Oakland, received more than 30 responses after sending out a query to her personal network for a graphics designer.

Then there's Donna Dresch, owner of Chainsaw records and former bassist with Screaming Trees, who, after some trees toppled over near her home, was looking for any Olympia, Wash., residents who owned, yes, a real chain saw. You can't make this stuff up.

Hot or Not?

Four years after the market crash turned Pets.com and Aeron chairs to cinder, all the Harvard MBAs with half-assed ideas (allergies.com anyone?) have learned caution. As the venture-capital community seeks alternative avenues to explore (currently biotech), social networking and online dating sites are emerging as the newest potential bubbles.

Just as eBay spurred online auctions, and Amazon demystified online shopping, websites such as Match.com and Yahoo! Personals have chipped away at Internet dating's stigma. The numbers back the hype. Major players such as Match.com, Yahoo! Personals, Matchnet and smaller sites generated $302 million in revenue last year, according to the Online Publishers Association. And more and more couples who met on Match.com are getting married (shoutout to Maryann and Peter). Friendster threatens to explode the Internet-dating model by exercising a simple premise: friendship as the basis of relationships.

So it's a surprise that things at Friendster central are moving at a conservative pace while simultaneously snowballing out of control. To understand this contradiction of business physics only requires a peep behind the scenes--if you can find them.

Friendster operates in two offices. There's a public address at 415 N. Mary Ave. in Sunnyvale but no physical presence. The other is a nondescript stealth office off Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View. A hundred-plus servers are housed in a separate facility in Fremont and are growing in number every day. It's business as usual under a veil of secrecy, not unlike the other faceless startups waiting for their first infusion of VC funding.

There's no signage from the street, nor is Friendster listed as a tenant on the building map. Walk up to the assigned door, and it's just that, a big block of wood. The only indication you've arrived is a Friendster sign behind the front desk and a helpful person wearing a fleece jacket (due to a faulty air conditioner that day) who offers a cup of coffee.

The spot is a Segway and Aeron chair-free zone. Scattered around the mostly spartan 1,600-square-foot headquarters are Desk Depot knockoffs positioned against bare beige walls. When Abrams seats down, it's in a chair he got for free.

He asks that I don't reveal the address; they just don't have enough help to sort through the potential employees who could and would stroll through the door. The 10-person staff moved into these quarters in July, and the company is already looking for a larger space.

Abrams does it all--answer phones, respond to email, sign checks, add servers, fix bugs. Friendster is hiring in all areas. "We're in the middle of recruiting, so Metro readers, send your résumés to [email protected]," he advises.

Anonymous as it is are from the outside, the truth is that Friendster is anything but a faceless, struggling startup. Last month, three angel investors--former Yahoo! chief executive Tim Koogle, former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel and Google board member Ram Shriram--collectively kicked down more than a million dollars in funding. In a Sept. 16 MIT/Stanford Venture Lab panel discussion titled "Social Networking: Is There a Business Model?" moderator Tony Perkins (of social networking site Alwayson.com) quipped (not so) humorously that maverick venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Benchmark Capital had kicked down $10 million to Friendster.

Benchmark Capital's Bill Gurley, who was at the discussion, declined comment but told CBS Marketwatch, "Any site that could attract millions is worth taking note of." Abrams reportedly shook his head and acted coy. More recent scuttlebutt indicates that search engine Google is set to acquire Friendster.

"It is not our company policy to comment on rumors, sorry," Abrams responds.

Whether the scuttlebutt holds true, Abrams certainly knows where his next meal is coming from. He doesn't have to look for cash--it's coming to him.

Just a Friendster

Jonathan Abrams may be near rich, but Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab Five would have a field day with him. He's a 33-year-old, Jewish tech-geek poster boy. He shows up for our interview dressed in jeans, black shirt and dress shoes. His hair is soft brown with gray sprouts shooting through it, his face a flawless shade of computer-scientist pale. His office is drab beige, bereft of personal artifacts.

He often refers to himself as an entrepreneur, which is fair enough. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, and he was the former co-chair of the SDForum Venture Finance SIG. His choice of hang-outs--St. Stephen's Green and Fanny & Alexander's in Mountain View--are both entrepreneur stomping grounds.

The fame surrounding his company has yet to set in, though Abrams buzzes over an August appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. "I don't remember ever seeing any other Internet entrepreneur on a talk show," he asserts. "I'm still nobody. Friendster is cool. I'm no big shot, but I've never seen the founders of Yahoo! or eBay on Leno or Letterman."

A printout of an infographic from the jokester newspaper The Onion about social networks hangs on a bulletin board behind his desk. "Friend-matching websites like Friendster.com are gaining in popularity. What's the appeal?" reads the headline. Among the answers: "Online friends easier to cut loose than people who live in your building." "Great way to chip away at the remaining normal methods of human interaction.' "Wifester left and have never been that close to familyster."

Abrams treats The Onion infographic like a trophy. It's a source of geek pride. Friendster has entered the maws of the pop-culture machine, and responding to the daily challenges has been a 24/7 job. Even when he's away from work, he's working.

"All the challenges have been related to growth, whether finding time to do what I need to do, adding more servers, keeping up with emails," he says. "People early on saw a professional-looking website that was pretty sophisticated and assumed it was already a real company. We started getting thousands of emails a day, angry that they didn't get an immediate response. We're sitting here, just three guys! Oh, my God! Please bear with us! We're not even in an office yet. You're completely overwhelming us."

"Some people thought it was crazy, another dating site, who needs it?" he says. "I've developed a strong network in Silicon Valley. It's one of the reasons I moved here, because there's such a vibrant entrepreneur community. After the crash, people were leaving, but there's still some great people. It's a good environment. It's been really easy. It's almost shocking. We've been very fortunate."

Abrams admits he doesn't have much of a social life. He does reveal that the night before the interview he went out on a Friendster date. So, did he get a goodnight kiss?

"I don't kiss and tell," he says.

Canadian Bakin'

A native of Toronto, Jonathan Abrams graduated with an honors B.S. degree in computer science from McMaster University. In 1996, he came to California and worked for telecom switching software company Nortel. He rose to become one of the lead Internet Java guys at the computer tech lab. A desire to work with "real products at real Internet companies" lead him to Netscape.

"I wanted to be where I considered then to be the center of the universe," he reminisces.

That universe collapsed, and he was laid off after a year and a half. Abrams bounced around the valley, working as head of engineering at Bitfone Corporation and holding senior engineering duties at Bell Northern Research, CrossWorlds Software. He rebounded in 1998 by hatching Hotlinks, an online directory of people's favorite websites. He went through the old school Silicon Valley ritual of raising venture capital, hiring lots of people, working mad hours and sleeping under the desk until he sold Hotlinks off in 2001.

Flush with free time and a fat bank account--and, most famously, having been dumped by his girlfriend--Abrams took time off to travel, organize his apartment, hang out with friends and gingerly re-enter the dating pool via traditional and online means.

"I was having fun and hanging out with friends. I started hearing people admitting to using Match.com or Nerve. Some of those sites have been around for years--Match.com had been around for eight years!--but I never really heard friends admitting to use it."

Abrams was turned off by the sleazy anonymity that many of the dating sites allow their users to assume ("It's like, 'I'm cyberstud307,' 'I'm salsakid309,' all these random anonymous things were a total turnoff."). He had one buddy who would hook up with his platonic female friend's girlfriends. That's when the bell rang.

"I got to thinking it'd be cool if there's a website where you can skip all the weird anonymous stuff, use it with your friends for dating or friendship, and you can meet people through your friends. And so I came up with the idea. I shared the idea with friends. They all thought it was cool--even the women. So I started messing around on the computer and whipped up this prototype. Boom!"

By March of 2002, Abrams was ready to take Friendster to the web, but he insisted on taking things slow. He worked out of his apartment, writing code while watching cable television on his queen-size, Costco-bought Posturepedic.

"I didn't have to sleep under my desk, because I didn't have a desk. I was doing it at home," he says. "Instead of sleeping under the desk, I was working on my bed. I pretty much wrote all the original Friendster software sitting at home on my laptop watching TV and hacking away at code. That's how Friendster got written: watching tube."

Using his connections within the entrepreneurial community, Abrams privately raised $400,000 in seed money and, in August of 2002, launched a private version for his friends to try out. It was like the Fabergé Organics shampoo commercial: "You tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on and so on."

The original Friendster profile questions about movies, TV shows, authors and interests didn't take a lot of thought or sociological study. "A lot of it was based on my personal preferences. I didn't like filling out profiles on sites when I was testing them. Like 'talk about my ideal date, do I prefer a beach house to a loft in the city?, my favorite food.' Maybe I'm lazy--I didn't like filling out all the stuff. I just wanted to do something that was fun, quick and easy."

Is There a There There?

Businesses require a steady cash flow to run, and high-powered investment cash has its limits, especially when a business doesn't turn a profit. Friendster currently relies on small ads, merchandise and, oh yeah, the million dollars from the angel investors to pay its bills.

The dirty secret is that the future of Friendster depends on switching some of its programming from free to pay-for-use. For instance, if you want to contact someone outside of your Friendster network, it will reportedly cost between $5 and $8 (about a third of Match.com's subscription fee). This strategy is inducing conniptions among some users, similar to the stir created when Salon.com decided to change its structure: pay or endure a click-through ad.

"It's worked--slowly, because people resisted it," Salon Editor in Chief David Talbot said last April. "They don't want to pay for stuff online, unless it's porn or finance."

Abrams says reports about Friendster's impending switch to a subscription-based platform are overblown. "Basic membership will always be free. It will never cost money to log in and join," Abrams states. "As far as what extra features we'll have, that's still not finalized yet. Especially when it comes to new features, we haven't done yet. It's way premature whether [those will be] free or pay."

Previous news reports listed October as the official launch date, but Abrams says the date's still an unknown.

"There's all these rumors, and I don't know what they're based on," he says bemusedly. "I've never given anyone a date. A lot is based on adding more servers and making things run real good. We're not going to ask people to pay until the site is performing really well. There is no date. It's a decision I'll make some day on all the factors."

There is also an identity crisis to deal with it. Friendster positions itself as a dating site, but the word "Friend" is in the title. Will the dating crowd switch to a site that takes itself so casually? At Match.com, there's little confusion over what goes on at the website. Then, there is the deeper issue of sustained usability. When someone accumulates all the Friendsters they need, what next? Like most people, after the initial two-week love affair passed, Mike Park scaled down his daily Friendster use from a couple of hours to a manageable 20 minutes.

"Most of the people I was adding, I didn't know," he explains. "Kids were writing these testimonials, and they don't even know me."

danah boyd is perhaps the most vocal cultural critic of Friendster. boyd, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, researches social network tools and, in particular, Friendster.

"The problem with Friendster (in its current incarnation) is that it has little motivation for people to return, manage their network or otherwise keep coming back after the fun wears off," writes boyd, on her blog (www.zephoria.org/snt). "Unless Friendster figures out how to address these problems, it will fade. To do so, Friendster needs to evolve beyond a dating-only model, which seems unlikely. That is why I see Friendster as fading, and others emerging."

boyd predicts that Friendster will be around in a year, but in a different incarnation. "I think that it will be a dating site with limited appeal and a lot of folks who had 'been there, done that,'" she says.

Abrams counters that Friendster is experimenting with adding services like invitations, live chats and professional networking options.

"Our actual stats show that users are remaining active even after using Friendster for several months," says Abrams. "Whoever this [danah boyd] person is, she has no access to our data. But everyone has their theories about stuff, I guess."

Whether Friendster's evolution will be vigorous enough to satiate veteran Friendster-heads, please the VC funders (whose reputations for pushing around founders, even firing them, is well documented) or stave off the litany of copycats remains to be seen. But you can bet that the conga line of imitators working to cash in on their own version of Friendster is moving at DSL pace. And you better believe Microsoft and Yahoo! probably have their own social networking platforms in the works.

Where's the Party?

As Friendster spreads--and even spawns copycats and parody sites--the rumors, repercussions and accusations grow more volatile. Friendster has moved beyond Abrams' own imagination and embedded itself in the strata of pop culture.

Success has also completely rerouted Abrams' life. In August 2003, the interests listed in his Friendster profile included the trumpet, wine, parties, friends, sleeping, TiVo, music, painting and books. Abrams' most recent profile, dated Sept. 23, listed one interest: sleep.

Abrams must also deal with assumptions no other entrepreneur has to deal with: tech geek invents platform to get laid. Abrams crushes that notion: "I was doing OK meeting girls before I started Friendster. When you're not working and can go out three, four times a week, you meet lots of people. It's not hard meeting people. I really started Friendster because I thought it was a good business idea."

There's another repercussion he didn't expect. The stories of people who met on Friendster and shacking up are many, but in August, Abrams heard about a couple that met on Friendster are now engaged to be married. He hopes to get an invitation to the wedding or, at the very least, get an address so he can send a present.

"The site had only been up five months--it's a little quick for a marriage," he says. Abrams links his fingers into a hopeful bridge. He cocks his head and manages a smile. "Maybe if they have a son, they can name him Jonathan."

Faking the Funk: 'Mr. T.' is one of many phony profiles taking up precious bandwidth space on Friendster. The real Mr. T. doesn't need a social network, fool!

Hate Me Now

Imitation is highest form of flattery, except when it comes to Friendster

By Todd Inoue

ASK 50 Cent. Achieve any level of fame or notoriety, and the wankstas are sure to follow with their own retaliatory version of yourself. In the case of Friendster, which hasn't even launched proper, the list of websites gaining notoriety by mocking the social connection website grows daily.

Most notorious are Fakester, Pretendster, Enemyster and Fiendster. Fakester allows people to post fake friend profiles and testimonials. Enemyster is a parody site based on the Friendster model. Fiendster takes it to a hard-core realm. Pretendster is perhaps the most well thought out. It assigns fake friends to fill out meager Friendster pools and fills out phony testimonials. According to most recent stats, 5,416 "pretendsters" are floating around the Friendster network; 3,834 testimonials have been written by Pretendsters; 1,508 have been caught and sentenced to cyber gulag.

Every time one of those parody sites comes out, Jonathan Abrams' mailbox gets flooded with emails, typically asking, "Did you see this?" He views these sites with a jaundiced, sleep-deprived eye. It's inevitable and a pain in the ass byproduct of success. It's also a waste of bandwidth, clogging up the legit Friendsters having trouble signing in.

"Its kind of funny," says Abrams. "I'm surprised that people have the time to register domain names, set up a virtual hosting account, design the fake thing, upload it. You have to pay $35 to Register.com and find someone to host it. I'm amazed people spend several hours to create a parody of my little website. It's funny. It doesn't bother me."

Fakesters would beg to differ. They've set up their own retaliatory group on Yahoo! (friendster revolution), which spells out their manifesto. "We believe that Friendster's genocide of fakesters is the suicide of Friendster," it reads in part next to a picture of Che outfitted with Groucho Marx nose and glasses. "It is the Fakesters, this explosion of creativity, that differentiates Friendster from all other boring networking/dating sites. This genocide must end!"

Friendster does kick people off their site for perpetrating frauds. According to its service agreement, people basically have represent their real self. But keeping up with all the fake Julia Roberts, Mobys, Jesus Christs and Suge Knights who register at Friendster for shits and giggles is an all-day job.

Abrams won't elaborate on the process of kicking people off the site ("I can't get into the details of our internal tools," he says) but he knows Fakesters exist. "It's inevitable. You have 1 percent of 1 percent who want to do something silly. From 2 million users, it's a teeny percent of the people. People do silly stuff all the time, like sell a kidney on eBay. We're popular and with every popular service, people will try to pull stuff."

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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