Exploring Friendster Through the Circuit of Culture
By: Campbell Case
In a world that is almost fully dominated by social networks today, it is interesting to consider where it all started. Launched in 2002, Friendster pioneered social networking sites and accumulated 5 million registered accounts in just over a year of existence.1 It was originally created under the assumption that mutual friends are more likely to be good on dates as opposed to strangers but quickly grew to incorporate multiple other forms of connections.2 The website allowed people to create their own profile, post photos, formulate their social network through connecting with friends and friends-of-friends and browse networks of people. The popularity of the site began to diminish in the lack of user authenticity and competition from newer platforms like Facebook and MySpace. In understanding Friendster and its impact, the circuit of culture offers an extensive framework to analyze the production, consumption, identity, representation, and regulation of the site. This systematic process, developed by Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall and others, is critical for navigating the platform’s societal impacts, recognizing cultural practices and explaining technological innovations.
The production component of the circuit of culture focuses on the formulation of ideas, development and technical construction of the platform, and the culmination of resources to bring something to life to ultimately understand how it interacts with human culture. In short, it is the production of cultural commodities, such as websites, apps, and social media platforms. The production of Friendster focuses on how the idea of an online social networking site becomes a functional platform for users.
Friendster’s development and creation process stemmed from Jonathan Abrams’ vision to create a platform devoted to cultivating new social connections.3 Users built networks based on real-life friendships to forge new friendships using the “Circle of Friends” concept, where users could find new friends in friends-of-friends. The quick technological advances of the site is extremely evident in the two photos above that show Friendster’s homepage in 2004 compared to 2006. However, the rapid user growth led to frequent crashes and glitches that were too extensive to quickly fix resulting in negatively impacting user experiences.4
Friendster’s business model and monetization strategies were minimal at its launch, demonstrating its commitment to user engagement and connection compared to generating revenue. It fell short in capitalizing on integrating targeted advertising to the platform’s initial popularity and eventually took on a subscription model.5 The addition of premium memberships was met with resistance from users accustomed to other free social networking platforms. Friendster also struggled to attract and sustain advertisers because of competitors, like Facebook and MySpace, who were accumulating more users than Friendster.
Consumption, within the theoretical framework of the circuit of culture, encompasses not only the act of using or consuming these products but also includes the social and cultural meanings associated with the product. It highlights the role of users in constructing associations between products and societal concepts. Consumption is by no means a passive process but an active and creative mechanism that defines individuals’ identities and cultural interaction. The dynamic nature of consumption can be seen through Friendsters user engagement, interaction and experience as well as the site’s interface design.
Friendster’s user engagement reflected the consumption of social interactions, norms and behaviors prevalent within the digital space. The interface of the platform was designed to be a simple, user-friendly way for individuals to find new content, connect with others, and foster active engagement. Through gamification components like badges, points and leaderboards, it further instilled an emphasis on promoting user participation, resulting in more consumption both on an individual and community level. The various features of Friendster are integral in the platform’s interaction dynamics that contributed to the culture of online communities, both large and small.
“The Greatest Failed Internet Startup – Friendster”, YouTube video, 4/16/2018.
Some other aspects of Friendster that promoted consumption is the messaging and commenting feature as well as the personalized news feed. People could directly engage with others through individual chats or group chats. It provided a platform for individuals to participate in discussions, debates and the exchange of ideas which assisted in the shaping of cultural meanings. The photo above shows what the “Discussions” page looked like for users. The personalized news feeds that were unique to each profile gave users content based on their connections and interests that exposed them to diverse cultural products. It was a welcoming environment where people could connect with old friends, find new acquaintances, products, famous people and expand their cultural awareness all through one site. In sum, the user engagement and interaction components of Friendster are dynamically related to consumption with the circuit of culture through fostering connections, sharing content, cultivating group interaction and ultimately creating a culture within the digital realm.
“The Greatest Failed Internet Startup – Friendster”, YouTube video, 4/16/2018.
The addition of fan profiles to Friendster introduced a way for individuals all over the world to come together over the common likeness of an entity. These fan profiles facilitated interest-based groups where people could participate in discussions, share content, join profile specific mailing lists and even engage with who they are a fan of.6 Entities utilized fan profiles to promote their content, events and products, directly connecting with their fans and influencing consumption. In an article, Jeff Roberto, the marketing director at Friendster, acknowledged how this new component of the platform makes the consumption cycle continuous, “Feature set that promotes them, even when they’re not online… [fan profiles] continuously promotes you or your organization to more people via the fans already connected to you, and publicly via major search engines”.7
Lastly, another way Friendster continued consumption is through their partnership with OLX, a classifieds listing provider.8 This collaboration with OLX allowed users the possibility to filter through classifieds like jobs, items for sale, services, vehicles, real estate and so much more in order to satisfy a potential need.9 Individuals could buy, sell and trade goods on the same digital platform where they connected socially. Thus representing the convergence of two different forms of consumption, social engagement and economic exchange.
Identity is the next focus of the circuit of culture and it explores the creation, representation and impact of individual as well as group identities in cultural contexts. It seeks to answer how identities are created, shared and viewed to influence societal frameworks. Identity is a fluid and dynamic construct shaped by an individual’s experiences and interactions. The means for cultivating individual and community identities was forever changed by the introduction of social networking platforms like Friendster. It gave users a platform to build, experiment, express and be exposed to a multitude of ways to represent themselves.
“Friendster 2004,” Web Design Museum, accessed 11/27/23.
A user’s Friendster profile represented their online identity where they could personalize their page with photos, interests, friendships and social networks. This process of self-representation enabled individuals to demonstrate their individuality and formulate their role on the Friendster social media platform. Friendster welcomed and encouraged the connection of users with niche interests or unique facets that defined some aspect of their identity. Given the ever evolving structure of the site, users could continue to reconstruct and transform their online identities as their offline identity developed. The global reach of Friendster defied geographical barriers to expose users to diverse cultural influences which encouraged them to assess their identities with a greater awareness of other cultures.
Through connections and shared content, the users’ online identity granted them a sense of belonging, validation and self-expression which can largely be seen as a positive outcome. However, this drastically impacted how individuals see or judged themselves and created the potential for a concern of how they might be perceived by others, “People will put a more accurate picture of themselves on Friendster because you know your friends will see it.”10 Individuals could meticulously construct their profile by selecting specific content to portray particular aspects of their offline life. This sometimes resulted in an idealized appearance or misrepresentation of someone’s identity, which is still an issue today. Creating a social media identity without the thought of potential judgment from others fosters a natural exploration of online culture and self-expression. An online identity should embrace the interests of someone while exposing them to like-minded people and potential new interests to ultimately contribute to the authenticity of a culture. Friendster will be remembered as a pioneer for identity cultivation and exploration through social networking platforms.
Representation within the circuit of culture seeks to understand how individuals, groups and ideas are portrayed or perceived within cultural contexts. It closely examines how the creation of some images, stories and other content is a product of how we display ourselves, others and the world. This is directly connected to social media platforms like Friendster because people are cultivating profile pages to represent themselves in a digital capacity. People could choose to represent themselves through photos, message posts, voicing their opinions, connecting with specific groups and a number of different ways.
“Friendster.com – Internet Archive Wayback Machine.” Friendster.com – Internet Archive Wayback Machine. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2014.
When personal profiles first appeared on Friendster, users had the ability to present themselves as they wish, including as much or as little of their true life. Above shows all the information that was needed in order to make a profile. However, this introduced the potential for misrepresentation and raised a concern about authenticity and led to a number of other issues. Individuals, eventually called “Fakesters”, could post inaccurate information, false images, fake profiles or present altered versions of their lives without other users knowing. Friendster gradually began to lose the trust and credibility within the community, “Fakesters were actually great because they reminded him that nothing presented on Friendster is actually real.”11 Fakesters normally fall into three categories, cultural characters (God, Bart Simpon), community characters that represent external collections of groups (Coachella, Yale University) and characters meant to be perceived as real (false profile of your friend).12 Users’ privacy and safety was threatened as the creation of fake profiles became more and more common. Stereotypes of gender, race, ethnicity and other social groups were reinforced through the perpetuation of user falsification and these bais impacted how other users were treated. Consequently, the increase in “Fakester” accounts negatively reflected the lack of diversity of society resulting in inaccurate and underrepresentation of specific groups. The misrepresentation diminished the trust and credibility of Friendster’s platform that was ultimately a main reason for its downfall.
The fifth and final aspect of the circuit of culture is regulation. This focuses on the formal and informal controls that govern the creation, propagation and consumption of cultural content within societal contexts. It serves to install and maintain order through promoting ethical practices within cultural arenas to protect individuals and society. Friendster and other social networking platforms assume a complex role of regulation that has to navigate a balance between user’s need for freedom and the platform’s responsibility to address potential harm or abuse.
Friendster implemented a number of policies and guidelines to regulate user behavior, shared content and community interactions. The platform had a published set of standards for the Friendster community that promoted respectful interactions while preventing cyberbullying, discrimination and other harmful online actions. It defined acceptable and prohibited activities like hate speech, harassment and sharing of illegal content. Friendster acknowledged and protected intellectual property while monitoring the sharing of copyrighted material. It also implemented privacy settings and tools controlled by the user to determine the level of access to the user’s information or content.
“Social Media Through the Ages: Revolutionizing Digital Content,” The Baylor Lariat, November 13, 2018, accessed 11/27/23.
The regulatory actions of Friendster had the right intent but lacked in execution, “Friendster’s downfall resulted from imposing and enforcing a governance regime.”13 They failed to impose rules against fake identities at the platform’s inception that the pioneering social media platform was not prepared to manage. As Facebook was created, it required people to use their real identities and needed confirmation through an email address.14 The digital space of Friendster served as a learning curve for social media services and gave insight to issues that arise on social networking platforms.
Finally, Friendster’s downfall presented valuable lessons for social media regulation and business models. As mentioned, later platforms like Facebook implemented specific identity verification regulations to combat falsification and harassment concerns that diminished Friendster’s credibility and eventual popularity. Newer platforms also closely concentrated on maximizing monetary opportunities like targeted advertising, data collection and subscription fees to profit from user networks without hindering growth through fees. Friendster verified some integral components central to social networking like interconnectivity, self-expression, and interest-based communities. However, it fell short in providing an operationally sound digital platform that balanced user needs for freedom and authentic human connection with business priorities. Friendster is still considered a trailblazer that uncovered predominant social and cultural tensions around identity, interactions, relationships and regulation in digital spaces. It provided a blueprint for following social media platforms to avoid its pitfalls and pick up where Friendster left off. It paved the way for the development of social technologies that have become extremely influential and integral in how people connect with others and partake in cultural aspects of society. While Friendster might not have lasted, the platform’s production, consumption, sense of digital identity, ability for online self-representation and need for governance is still deeply pertinent and evident in the culture of the internet.
In conclusion, the framework of the circuit of culture and its analysis process provides a valuable insight into the story of a social media platform catalyst Friendster. The production of the site was piloted by Jonathan Abrams vision of facilitating meaningful connections that defied geographical obstacles and spurred technological innovations. However, the rapid influx in popularity led to scaling issues and the platform failed to seize monetization opportunities that prevented long-term viability. The consumption of social interactions, either through profiles or interest groups, created an ever-changing online culture and community that has progressed to the digital age we know today. However, the multifaceted exploration of identities through digital self-representation also gave way to misrepresentation by “Fakesters” that threatened user safety and authenticity. As a result, Friendster failed to establish adequate methods of governance amidst its explosive growth.
- Danah Michele Boyd, “Friendster and Publicly Articulated Social Networking,” in Proceedings of ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2004), Vienna, Austria. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- David S. Evans, “Article: Governing Bad Behavior by Users of Multi-Sided Platforms,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 27 (Fall 2012): 1201. ↩︎
- David H. Goff, “A History of the Social Media Industries,” in The Social Media Industries, 16-46 (Routledge, 2013). ↩︎
- “Friendster Network Grows in Popularity,” Associated Press Online, August 3, 2003, Sunday. ↩︎
- “Friendster Launches Fan Profiles,” MediaNet Press Release Wire, September 28, 2007, Friday. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- “Friendster Launches Global Online Classifieds and Job Listings; Friendster Partners with Leading Online Classifieds Site OLX,” PR Newswire US, May 10, 2007, Thursday. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Evans, “Governing Bad Behavior”. ↩︎
- Boyd, “Friendster and Publicly Articulated Social Networking”. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Evans, “Governing Bad Behavior”. ↩︎
- Evans, “Governing Bad Behavior”. ↩︎
Ammirati, Sean. The Science of Growth: How Facebook Beat Friendster and How Nine Other
Startups Left the Rest in the Dust. St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Boyd, danah michele. “Friendster and Publicly Articulated Social Networking.” In Proceedings of ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2004), Vienna, Austria.
David S. Evans+, “ARTICLE: Governing Bad Behavior by Users of Multi-Sided Platforms,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 27, 1201 (Fall, 2012).
“Friendster and Eurekster Join to Launch Personalized Internet Search Services on Friendster Online Community; Friendster Debuts Internet Search and Navigation Powered by Members, Their Social Networks and Their Diverse Interests”. Market Wire. December 9, 2004 Thursday.
“Friendster Network Grows in Popularity”. Associated Press Online. August 3, 2003 Sunday.
“Friendster Launches Fan Profiles”. MediaNet Press Release Wire. September 28, 2007 Friday.
“Friendster Launches Global Online Classifieds and Job Listings; Friendster Partners with Leading Online Classifieds Site OLX “. PR Newswire US. May 10, 2007 Thursday.
Gloor, Peter Andreas, and Scott M. Cooper. Coolhunting: Chasing Down the Next Big Thing.
Goff, David H. “A History of the Social Media Industries.” In The Social Media Industries, 16-46. Routledge, 2013.
Heer, Jeffrey, and Danah Boyd. “Vizster: Visualizing Online Social Networks.” In IEEE Symposium on Information Visualization, 2005 (INFOVIS 2005), 32-39. Minneapolis, MN, USA, 2005. doi: 10.1109/INFVIS.2005.1532126.
Victoria Murphy. “You’re Not My Friendster”. Forbes. December 8, 2003.