Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly

Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock, AP)

Sixteen years ago, the sun set on Web 1.0, and we embarked by the light of our smartphones to 24/7 connectivity, down a road paved with corporate blunders, littered with yesterday’s top 8 friends, scrubbed n00ds, trashed chiptune tracks, bomb threats, and downy unicorn costumes. Comedic treasures were born and abandoned by parent companies, screaming crowds running through billowing tear gas from police vanished behind defunct video players. Devs dreamed of love, artists of postmodern interfaces, and unknowns of entertainment careers. Netizens injured themselves for stunts, by accident, and on purpose. We submitted to our overlord Mark Zuckerberg and the army of influencers. And so many rubber ducks wailed.

Lots of corporations (mostly Google) have competed with Facebook for the social media colonies, and their attempts aren’t missed, but Facebook’s monopoly also beat out the divey-er venues and communal spaces which elevated their members to five minutes of fame and triple platinum albums without sponcon.

Their obituaries tell us what we already know – that your feed could look a lot more interesting, more avant-garde, joyous, local, intimate, kinky, weird, and hilarious – and yes, scarier and even more hateful than it does now – thanks to varying degrees of censorship, cross-platform embeds, aesthetic customisation, technopanic, and algorithm-free zones. It’s not to say that without Facebook, the whole internet would be more like a local farmer’s market or a punk venue or an art gallery or comedy club or a Narnia fanfic club, just that those places are harder to find these days.

Friendster (2002-2015)

It’s 2003, and the future is a white guy in a wide-collar button-down behind a Honda CR-V of laptops (a Dell, possibly?) in a 250 pixel-wide frame. That’s Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams, featured in an SF Weekly story by Lessley Anderson. In it, she describes the strange experience of opening your laptop onto the world of social media, and Friendster’s exciting premise that all people are connected by six degrees of separation:

“Your induction into Friendster starts out innocently enough: You receive an email invitation from a friend. It doesn’t cost anything to join, so you give it a whirl. You answer questions about your profession, favourite books, movies, music, and other interests, then upload a digital photo of yourself.

Thumbnail versions of your friends’ photos appear on your profile page like a collection of trading cards. Clicking on their pictures takes you to their pages, where you can see all of their friends, and so on. Even with only a few friends, you find that — through friends of friends — you suddenly have access to a social network of thousands of people.”

Friendster, which Abrams is believed to have conceived as a dating site, reportedly signed up three million users in its first three months. Copycats Myspace, Ringo.com, and Orkut followed.

Friendster’s conceptual vastness, connecting all people on the internet, could have been its downfall; in attempts to reach even more people, Fakesters like “Homer Simpson” and “Jesus” popped up for the sole purpose of amassing friend collections, and friend groups became more and more diluted.

By the New York Times’s and Abrams’s own account, though, hubris killed Friendster. A group of venture capitalists persuaded Abrams to turn down a $US30 ($44) million offer from Google and then ran it into the ground with novel features rather than keeping the creaky site functioning smoothly. Pages just didn’t load.

Friendster was largely considered dead by 2006. In 2009, it was redesigned and acquired by a Malaysian payments company for a reported $US40 ($59) million.

In 2011, it deleted all of its user profiles and announced a do over as a social gaming platform. In 2015, Friendster announced that it was “taking a break.” It never returned, and many of its early users reportedly defected to Myspace.

Myspace (2003-present)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: June 10 2004, Internet Archive

We outgrew our side-swipe bangs, burned our diaries, and moved into Facebook’s collegial suburbs. But why?

In 2008, two years after reportedly surpassing Google as the most-visited website in the United States, Facebook eclipsed Myspace’s monthly user count. In 2011, when Myspace announced it was laying off half its staff, the New York Times attributed its decline to “fickle consumers and changing tastes”, a corporate “culture clash”, litter of celebrity promotion and pop-up ads and Facebook’s standardised utilitarian interface – meaning that prefab profiles with names stylings like John Doe versus jdoe1234 were appealing to people.

Forbes attributes Facebook’s generic design and its slow expansion through universities (with school email address verifications) and 13+ age policy to a perception that Facebook was a “safe space,” which would have incidentally coincided with a technopanic created by news reports of pedophilia. Social media scholar danah boyd performed an extensive study finding that racism also played a part, with upper-middle class white users deciding to wall off into exclusive groups.

It is true that Myspace withered after News Corporation bought it for $US580 ($858) million in 2005. Hefty layoffs followed in 2009 and 2011. It was sold and bought and sold and bought again for a fraction of the price. In 2011, just like Friendster, CEO Mike Jones announced that they would no longer try to rival Facebook in social networking and described their new strategy as a “social entertainment” site like Huffington Post, whatever that means. In March, the company admitted that they’d lost practically all of their user data pre-2016. LinkedIn lists 393 current employees at the company, down from 1,300 in 2009.

That is too bad because today there’s no parallel. Myspace was originally designed so that you could go down a rabbit hole of bands’ pages, finding who influenced each other from their friends and posts, making it easy for non-coastal local bands to get followings and book shows. Those unknowns certainly aren’t coming up on your algorithmically-sorted feed.

Bebo (2005-2013)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: February 28, 2005, Internet Archive

Bebo wouldn’t be on the list, if not for a stunning bit of manoeuvring at the outset of the corporate crusade to blindly colonise social media at any expense. Which made spouses Xochi and Michael Birch wealthy beyond a start-up’s wildest dreams.

In 2008, AOL bought Bebo for $US850 million ($1.257 billion) in what Gawker called “the best social-network cashout to date.” Wired wrote in 2013 that Bebo “was never, not for one bright shining moment, ever regarded as a leading network,” more a “tool to exploit big clueless corporate suitors.”

Despite its impressive 2005 debut, hitting one million users nine days after its launch, Bebo did indeed fail to distinguish itself. In 2010, AOL sold it to a private equity fund for $US10 ($15) million. In 2013, Birch bought it back for $US1 ($1.4) million and announced a planned relaunch which didn’t take off.

Then they donated the leftovers to Myspace Tom in solidarity.

Not really, but they have reportedly given millions to charity: water and shepherded it to philanthropists of Silicon Valley. They made a fancy members-only post-gentrification-New York club in San Francisco which was considered lame. And then the Queen awarded them both OBEs.

OpenSocial (2007-??)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: November 3, 2011, Internet Archive

One of many failed attempts to thwart Facebook, OpenSocial was conceived by an “alliance” between Google, Myspace, and struggling social networks to combat Facebook’s amassment of games and apps by independent developers. The OpenSocial software presumably would attract more developers with standardised API to distribute apps across all sites.

It’s still around, but it’s mostly described now in the past tense. Reddit product strategist Jason Costa wrote in 2017 that the various languages across sites’ containers would have been a headache for developers who had to rewrite their programs for each network.

In 2010, Brian Balfour, co-founder of the gaming platform Viximio, wrote for Adweek that the project had fizzled out mainly due to lack of follow-through.

ConnectU (2002-2008)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: January 25, 2005, Internet Archive

Nobody knows of ConnectU because it’s the Facebook that never was. Nobody references it as the misfortunate underdog because it’s not the Facebook we need.

Mark Zuckerberg’s classmates Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra accused him of stealing their idea for an exclusive Harvard student/alumni dating network “ConnectU,” which they’d thought up in 2002. They alleged that they’d asked him to finish programming ConnectU, and that instead of delivering as promised, Zuckerberg delayed ConnectU and launched Facebook.

The ConnectU guys went on to try a few more ideas, like ConnectHi for high schoolers and Social Butterfly, a ConnectU feature which would allow you to integrate your connections from outside networks like Facebook. In 2007, at which point Facebook had 31 million users, they sued Facebook for a laundry list of allegations including misappropriation of trade secrets, copyright infringement and fraud.

The complaint argues that ConnectU’s original Harvard-only base of “well-educated students and alumni” would have been an “attractive demographic for many advertisers,” which is true, but not exactly heartbreaking.

The Guardian reported in 2009 that Facebook paid up to $US65 ($96) million in cash and shares. Divya Narendra defends Facebook on TV now, and the Winklevoss brothers are Bitcoin billionaires. They’re all on Facebook.

Tribe.net (2003-2008)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: February 19, 2007, Internet Archive

Imagine a craigslist for burners, and you had tribe.net, a site for both unloading queen-size bed frames and fostering community groups for (mainly) the Bay Area Burning Man crowd and “proud freaks” called “tribes.”

The site, founded by Zynga founder Mark Pincus, doesn’t seem to have cracked a million users, but it was a sanctum for worshippers of sailor flesh, wheat-free enthusiasts, and wolven clans for elves who are also wolves.

In 2005, tribe announced that it was barring sexually explicit and offensive content, amidst the Justice Department’s crackdown on internet porn, and a reported advertiser scare. A “Terms of Use Guy” appeared to surveil and report “offensive content.” With him went the smart girls’ porn club, and eventually, the users.

In 2006, Pincus blogged that new management, or “a big stupid masthead” had commandeered control of the site, that he was reclaiming control and “returning the tribe to users.”

In 2008, while Pincus’s other company Zynga was building an empire of games on Facebook (like FarmVille), he told SF Weekly that he was keeping tribe up because it “serves a really valuable role in the community” – but the same piece notes that tribe’s homepage was down, and by 2017, tribe announced that it was “working out options” for a new site host.

Neglect is not good for a social network. In 2018, a reddit conspiracy group with a very elaborate Clinton Foundation theory posted verifiable Wayback Machine screenshots of pedophilic threads from the “sick n’ twisted” tribe circa 2016, which has stuck, still, to tribe.net’s Google results.

Path (2010-2018)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: February 20, 2007, Internet Archive

Now that it’s 2010, your auditorium of Facebook friends includes a guy you met at a bar and various other… acquaintances. This was the impetus for the 50-friends-only mobile app Path, which co-founders David Morin (of Facebook) and Shawn Fanning and Dustin Mierau (of Napster) based on the findings of anthropologist Robin Dunbar, that people can generally have between 40 and 60 close friends and family. (According to the New York Times, Dunbar’s research was “a popular topic of discussion” amongst social network developers at the time.) In 2012, Path broadened the friend limit to 150, aka “Dunbar’s Number,” representing a person’s maximum number of stable relationships. Path called itself a “personal network.”

Path was “red-hot”, reaching 1.5 million downloads in the first three weeks; after three months, the founders reportedly declined a $US100 ($148) million offer from Google, and by 2013 it was reportedly valued at $US500 ($739) million. A year after Facebook had just dethroned Myspace, Path was a bonafide Facebook “competitor.”

Path lost some of its vibey goodwill in 2012, when it admitted to the then-taboo practice of pulling contacts from users’ phone books, including those of its early adopters under the age of 13, resulting in an $US800,000 ($1.183 million) FTC fine.

In 2014, on the brink of failure, Path increased the friend limit to 500. In 2015, the Korean communications company Daum Kakao bought Path for an undisclosed sum. In 2018, Path shut down.

In 2012, Kirsten Bischoff, co-founder of the micro social network HATCHEDit, warned that Path could easily become another “excellent tool that was ahead of its time,” unable to compete with Facebook’s exploding user base – at that point, gaining about 50 million active monthly users per quarter.

Six years later, Bischoff’s prediction came true in a eulogy by Gizmodo’s Harrison Weber.

Path had some other good ideas: a text service with a person on the other end who would call your local businesses to answer questions like whether a restaurant has reservations or Home Depot has a part. And you can still experience a small portion of Path today on Facebook, which has a near-identical version of Path’s “Reactions.”

Yik Yak (2013-2017)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: July 15, 2014, Internet Archive

The app for college students that quickly turned into a Black Mirror episode. Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app designed by frat brothers Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington with campuses in mind, allowed users to broadcast posts within a five-mile radius without creating a username. It soon became a scourge on 1600 schools, terrorised by Yik Yak-borne threats: bomb threats which led to multiple lockdowns and evacuations, a threat of a “Virginia Tech 2.0,” threats by white students to kill black students, threats to rape and “euthanise” feminist students, and general cruelty and mockery encouraging suicide.

Several schools banned it, subpoenas and court orders were issued, federal complaints were filed against schools, and Yik Yak had to disable the app near high schools and middle schools altogether.

Yik Yak briefly dominated the tide of anonymous messaging apps like Whisper, Secret, and Formspring; in September 2014, it peaked the third-most-downloaded iOS app with 1.8 million monthly downloads. By the same time the following year, it had shrunk to 125,000 per month. It finally shut down in 2017.

Ello (2014-present)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: October 8, 2015, Internet Archive

Ello was the Rem Koolhaas building of social media, in all of its elite minimalist beauty. Seven self-described “well-known artists and designers” of the studio Berger & Föhr manifested an invite-only anti-Facebook, its bare white walls uncluttered by ads, intended for high-resolution photos and dainty sans-serif text.

The boutique network happened to coincide with growing anxiety around Facebook’s invasive ad targeting, and they launched in 2014 with the edict “You Are Not a Product” – although the trade-off was that you had to be accepted. Sign-up requests surged a few months later with Facebook’s “real name” policy crackdown and ensuing LGBTQ exodus. At its peak, one Ello co-founder reported that they were getting 34,000 invite requests per hour.

So many people wanted to join that Ello frequently had to put requests on hold to handle the volume, and it was buggy. That’s not surprising, since Ello was still in beta mode and manned by a team of designers who weren’t collecting ad revenue or subscription fees as it was going viral.

At the time, UX product designer Bona Kim wrote that broken functions, a squirrelly style sheet, incompatibility with mobile, and unclear hierarchy of information at the expense aesthetic “simplicity” made it maddeningly unusable.

Fair enough — from the beginning, Ello said that they never intended to be a Facebook replacement.

They’ve since redesigned to with a more accessible aesthetic which reads like a fashion brand. You can sign up without an invite now, though.

Orkut (2004-2014)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: February 5, 2004, Internet Archive

Google tried and tried and tried and tried and tried, but it can’t get a social network going. After it attempted to buy Friendster for $US30 ($44) million, Google launched Orkut, shortly after Myspace and just before Facebook. And like so many social media founders, Orkut’s eponymous Google software engineer Orkut Büyükkökten seems to have dreamed it up as a dating site, or, describing it to the New Yorker in 2004: “a good matrix for romance.” Since I was never on the site, I defer to the New Yorker’s description:

“New Orkut members fill out pastel-blue forms: favourite TV shows, career skills, perfect first date, bedroom contents. They upload photographs of themselves in alluring or alarming poses.

They find “Communities” to join: Photography (3,449 members), Belgian Beer (114 members), Kosher Roommates (“for coping or recovering roommates of Kosher adherents”; 3 members). If the right Community doesn’t exist, they’re free to found a new one. They can rate their friends, relying on an ancient system of hieroglyphs — smiley faces, ice cubes, and hearts, which stand, respectively, for trustworthiness, coolness, and sexiness.“

See Orkut’s 2004 homepage here.

Over the next decade, Orkut never took off in the US but was huge in Brazil and India, at one point, claiming 27 million members to Facebook’s 4.2 million. Orkut ostensibly fulfilled the same basic needs, but observers/analysts/users attributed Facebook’s dominance to a number of factors: Facebook had more games, the feed, the like button or notifications, a more “professional” look, mutual friends , and cultivated a following of international students and “professionals” who brought Facebook back to India.

In 2011, Facebook reportedly surpassed Orkut in Brazil. In his farewell post, Büyükkökten wrote that Orkut had “a community of 300 million members” and invited them to move to his new network, “hello.”

As for Google…

Google+ (2011-2019)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: August 14, 2014, Internet Archive

Google’s next stab was a dreary jumble of boxes evoking a digital fulfilment centre. By all accounts, it was an attempt to integrate features that Facebook, LinkedIn, and the iPhone have cornered (like location sharing and automatic cloud storage for photos), but — with dropdown menus organising your people into “friends,” “family,” and “acquaintances,” further catalogued into the even more confusing “circles” — it felt like an unimaginative robot’s idea of socialising. Or, as Google+ UI designer Morgan Knutson called it in a postmortem tweetstorm, a ”god forsaken piece of shit.”

In a lengthy thread, Morgan described siloed teams under corporate bureaucracy which conceptualised networking as “the social graph”:

“Vic [Gundotra’s] product vision was fear-based. ‘Google built the knowledge graph, and Facebook swooped in and built the social graph. If we don’t own the social graph then we can’t claim to have indexed ALL the world’s data.’”

Plus, it was more overtly unsettling than Facebook in the same way that your gmail avatar started popping up in the upper right hand corner of YouTube and your Chrome browser. That’s because, as the New York Times reported in 2014 (even then, calling it a “ghost town”), Google Plus was basically an attempt to collect a central dataset for all of the stuff you were doing across all Google services; at one point, you couldn’t set up a gmail account or comment on YouTube without setting up Google Plus. In the words of Google Plus project management VP Bradley Horowitz, it “gives Google that common understanding of who you are.”

On October 8th, 2018, the same day the Wall Street Journal reported that Google Plus had exposed hundreds of thousands of user data for years, Google announced that it would shut down the service in August due to “low usage and engagement.” Additional data was exposed from 5.2 million accounts during a November software update, and Google started deleting profiles in April.

Maybe this time??

Vine (2012-2016)

Why These Social Networks Failed So BadlyScreenshot: September 30, 2014, Internet Archive

The video-sharing app Vine was less of a social network and more of a microblogging platform like its owner, Twitter, but for a while, Vine dominated the internet’s imagination, and its links populated all networks. The six-second loop format generated a new medium for comedy and activism, most memorably, for work by creators of colour.

In 2015, writing about the full-blown cultural universe created by black Viners, journalist Hannah Giorgis observed that the Twitter-embeddable fast-paced loops meant you saw a lot more people, faster, in a rhythmic format conducive to “percussive precision” that’s lost in longer YouTube vlogs. “And six seconds isn’t necessarily enough time to give backstory, to explain your punch line (or yourself) to viewers who don’t already have the context they need to understand,” she added.

That description goes as much for a cultural sensation started with a child ballerina dancing to “do it for the vine!” as it does for Jus Reign’s parody questions about his turban, backwards handsprings through a Krispy Kreme, and singing on a counter at WalMart. 

The speed and ease of posting six-second clips, before the invention of Periscope and Instagram video, also made it a critical tool for activists.

Protests erupted around the country after St. Louis city alderman Antonio French posted police surrounding Michael Brown’s body on Vine; the subsequent nationwide uprising was Vined and compiled into an all-Vine documentary.

The 2013 bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, anti-refugee hostility in Europe, the enormity of the Umbrella Movement, and 2013 protests in Brazil – all Vined.

And a potato flew around a room, the Apple Store woman yelled, and artists created art. Logan Paul was also there.

Then Vine shut down. Generally journalists gleaned that it just couldn’t compete with all the other similar video services; Vine’s owner Twitter had just undergone a round of layoffs, and Facebook and Instagram were just unrolling video functions.

A former executive told the Verge that “Instagram video was the beginning of the end.” Vine gave users advance notice and tools to download their stuff, but it left a generation of stories riddled with dead links.