This month's cover story looks at Friendster, a great idea, backed by the best and brightest of Silicon Valley, that somehow didn't take. What happened? The answer—which I learned in interviews with founder Jonathan Abrams, investors, and employees—is a combination of hubris, mismanagement, and bad luck, driven by Abram's decision to take on a load of VC funding.
One aspect of the Friendster story that's gotten more attention lately—including a column in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal—has been the site's popularity in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Journal suggests that this popularity may one day be the saving grace of a company that, as of April, had yet to turn a profit. But the Southeast Asian users, who are worthless to most American advertisers, were also a key reason Friendster failed to blossom, sucking bandwidth and slowing down an already slow website.
How does this happen? A former employee explained it to me this way: With social networks, you don't pick your users, they pick you. Google launched Orkut as a Friendster competitor in 2004. It never caught on in America, but it's the most popular social network in Brazil.
Another way to answer this question is with a name: Carmen Leilani De Jesus, patient zero of Friendster's unwitting South Asian expansion. An acquaintance of Abrams and the 91st person to join the site, she was the first American user to "Friendster" someone in Southeast Asia. The rest is history—Carmen's friends found other friends and so on, until more than half of the site's traffic was coming from the other side of the world.
Considering the fact that Friendster has never been available in any language other than English, that's a testament to the power of the Abrams's vision—a simple piece of software that allowed users to see how they fit into their world. It's also, given that these users helped cause the site to buckle, a testament to the tenuousness of such visions.