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May the Best Brand Win: Facebook vs. Friendster


One is huge in Asia. One is just huge.

Unless you currently reside in an Asian island nation, the word Friendster may ring only the vaguest of bells.

On the other hand, you probably spend more time on Facebook than you do with your friends, family, and bookie combined.

But it wasn't always that way: Back in 2003, Friendster was the pioneering social-networking site, with well over 3 million users and enough confidence to reject a $30 million buyout offer from Google (GOOG).

Back in those heady early days, Friendster creator Jonathan Abrams could be found everywhere: in Time magazine, in Entertainment Weekly, on Jimmy Kimmel Live - and at a host of high-profile Silicon Valley parties, generally with an aspiring actress-model on each arm. All of which left him with little time to make changes to his increasingly slow and buggy social network, which hadn't been written with quite so many millions of users in mind.

But Abrams' absence shouldn't have mattered, at least in theory. After all, he'd assembled a host of Internet all-stars to run his company while he served as its very public face: They included Scott Sassa, former president of NBC West Coast; Bob Kagle, the man who discovered eBay (EBAY); John Briggs, a top-ranking Yahoo (YHOO) executive; and John Doerr, a director at 2 little companies called Amazon (AMZN) and Google.

Predictably enough, however, this Dream Team could agree on nothing: Each had radically different ideas as to how to make the company as profitable as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, Friendster became a patchwork of badly integrated "features" -- blogs, video-sharing, VoIP, and radio -- none of which could be said to work, and all of which contributed to a wildly schizophrenic look and feel.

Meanwhile,Navigation Friendster was too busy attending to its investors to pay much attention to its users. In early 2004, its director of engineering happened to notice that the site's traffic suddenly spiked each night around 2 a.m. Looking at the site's log, he was startled to discover that all the IPs were in the Philippines - and more than half of its overall traffic was already coming from Southeast Asia.

Friendster had been spending millions of dollars in venture capital to attract users whom its advertisers (perhaps unfairly) regarded as worthless. This -- along with Facebook's uncanny ability to get people to happily make their most personal information available to advertisers -- can be regarded as the beginning of the end for the Friendster brand.

Now, though Friendster boasts some 80 million users, they're primarily located in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia - no match for Facebook's 150 million users, with 50 million in the US alone. And in October 2007, Microsoft (MSFT) paid $240 millon for a mere 1.6% share of Facebook - which puts its total worth at somewhere around $15 billion.

Of course, Friendster's status as the big-in-Asia social network is just one sign of what went wrong. What finally sealed its fate?

Abrams had originally conceived of Friendster as an extension of one's real-life connections; at its inception, you couldn't ogle everyone else in your regional network, or search for that one other living human who truly appreciated the work of Robert Goulet. You could only -- gasp! -- view the profiles of those you actually knew.

And, perhaps more crucially, Friendster has nothing that can compare with Facebook's infamous newsfeed: A sort of personal tabloid that helpfully informs everyone you ever met -- your freshman-year roommate, your pottery instructor, the random dude who friend-requested you after that kegger last summer -- about all the excruciating minutiae of your daily existence.

Never again will you have to individually inform friends of the death of your pet or the end of your 7-year relationship - the Facebook newsfeed will do it for you.

In the end, Facebook better understood the true purpose of social-networking sites: To replace human interaction, not to facilitate it.
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