Web Masters Episode #18: Jonathan Abrams

Before Facebook became synonymous with “social media,” and even before MySpace was the coolest website on the planet, there was another startup that most people credit with inventing social networking as we know it: Friendster. Hear its founder Jonathan Abrams, tell the story of Friendster’s rise and fall on the Web Masters Podcast.



Friendster was launched | Page 4 | Eyerys

Jonathan Abrams:

I had no idea if these ideas of mine would work, so I thought of it as a cool experiment and prototype. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it as a business at the early stages, because in the early stages, I really had just no clue if this wacky idea would work. Would people really be interested in this? Would they do it? And it turned out they did, but I didn’t know that. And it certainly wasn’t something I could have assumed because there wasn’t really anything like it before and it was asking people to kind of change their behavior, to do things that previously that people did not seem to be comfortable with on the internet. So in the early days, I wasn’t really thinking of it right away as a business, because I just wasn’t sure if this wacky idea of mine was going to work.

Aaron Dinin:

That wacky idea, you just heard being referenced was the wacky idea that people would be willing to use their real identities to post real pictures of themselves on a website for their real life friends to see. Of course today that seems like just about the least wacky idea you could imagine because it’s the foundation behind some of the most popular companies in the world. But that wasn’t always the case. In the earliest days of the web, most online posting was done using pseudonyms or anonymously, and the idea of posting content publicly as yourself would indeed have seemed wacky. But at some point, that perception clearly changed and people began thinking of their online lives as being inextricably linked with their offline lives. The person responsible for catalyzing that shift wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg, wasn’t even everyone’s friend from Myspace, Tom Anderson, it was Jonathan Abrams, Founder of Friendster. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hello everyone and welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that explores the history of the internet and the evolution of the digital world by talking with some of the web’s most influential and impactful early innovators. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial web entrepreneur. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University, and my favorite class to teach at Duke is my social marketing course, which is what makes today’s guest really exciting; Jonathan Abrams, Founder of Friendster. Friendster of course, is kind of like the err social network or proto social network. It’s the original of which all other modern social media platforms can be traced back to. So for a person like me speaking with the creator of Friendster is like someone who studies ancient Greece getting to have a conversation with Homer. Or to use a more contemporary example, someone who’s passionate about hip hop getting to chat with DJ Kool Herc. In other words, in this episode, we’re going back to ground zero of social media. But before we can get there, I want to pause for just a minute and thank our sponsor.

Web Masters wouldn’t be possible without the support of Latona’s, our amazing partner and sponsor. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that facilitates the buying and selling of cashflow positive digital assets, things like e-commerce stores, content websites, SAS apps, domain portfolios, Amazon FBAs, and any other type of online work from anywhere internet business. If you’re running one of those types of companies and thinking of selling it, Latona’s has a huge network of potential buyers and can help you get the best price. Similarly, if you’re interested in purchasing an already profitable internet business, be sure to head over to latonas.com where you’ll see all their listings for businesses currently for sale. That website again is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

From what I can tell, most entrepreneurs who achieve early success in a newly defined market segment, for example, social media in the early 2000s, they tend to have a habit of being early into lots of markets. It’s almost like a character trait or dependent on who you ask, a character flaw. So it’s probably not going to be too surprising when I tell you that before being early into the social media market with Friendster, you could find this episode’s guest, Jonathan Abrams hanging around a lot of other early digital technologies. In fact as you’re about to hear, Jonathan has a strange and somewhat impressive habit of being part of companies and technologies like Friendster, mostly in the sense that maybe they ultimately didn’t achieve massive success, but they foreshadow the kinds of companies and technologies that would later go on to become immensely popular. And for Jonathan, that tendency to be super early to a new technology trend can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of the internet itself.

Jonathan Abrams:

In terms of the internet, the first time I remember experiencing it was actually one of the predecessors of the internet. It was BITNET.

Aaron Dinin:

Most people haven’t heard of BITNET, but it was kind of like an early competitor to the internet. However, instead of being a network of remotely connected machines where you could access information directly from other computers, which of course is what the internet is, BITNET was what’s known as a point-to-point system where all the data being shared in something like a file or email would be sent in its entirety to another computer and then another, and then another, until it eventually wound up at its intended destination. BITNET reached its peak in the early ’90s and fell out of favor rapidly soon after, which not coincidentally correlates with the rise and popularity of the World Wide Web, which of course sits on top of the internet. And kind of like Friendster, BITNET had a lot of similarities to the platform that ultimately superseded it.

Jonathan Abrams:

There was a thing called the relay chat. I guess Slack was the business version of IRC. The I in IRC was Internet Relay Chat. So before the Internet Relay Chat, there was the original relay chat and I remember using that. Actually, it’s kind of strange, but in high school I participated in a high school co-op computer science program and they actually placed me at one of the universities in Toronto. So even though I was in high school, I was essentially doing some work at a university, helping them with their computer equipment for a high school co-op program, just in retrospect. It’s kind of strange, but nonetheless, I had an account on, I guess it was a mainframe computer. I think it was probably an IBM mainframe and it had access to not the internet, but the BITNET relay chat. And you could send messages to other people over BITNET.

That was probably my first experience with one of the sort of predecessors to the internet. Then after that, I went to college and I was studying computer science and then I had access to FTP and WAIS and Telnet and Gopher and all those early internet services.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So you were a computer science major in college, and so I’m guessing that’s how you ended up starting tech companies after college?

Jonathan Abrams:

In terms of starting companies. So after college, I was working at Nortel in Canada doing communication software, and I didn’t really think I could get a job doing anything on the internet or web. I had been extremely interested in the web and HTML and HTTP and an early user of it. But at the time I graduated in college, I didn’t think you could get paid to do any of that stuff. So I was working in Nortel doing communication software, Telephony software.

While I was working at Nortel, I had been a big fan of Yahoo and I had been using it since it was hosted at stanford.edu address. And Nortel because it was a telecom company had an intranet very early, earlier than most companies would. And it was a big company. They had 80,000 people and they had people in different offices all over the world, and they started to have internal webpages just within the company, but all the company’s different divisions and products and technologies. And I realized that there was so many internal webpages, it was hard to navigate it all and find them and share them. And I thought, you know what we need is something like Yahoo for Nortel, for our company. And I actually called it Achoo, which was a play on Yahoo. And I created a internal web directory for our intranet at Nortel, and I even drew a logo that kind of looked like the Yahoo logo, except it was Achoo like a sneeze instead of Yahoo. And that actually quickly became popular within Nortel.

Aaron Dinin:

And did Nortel decide to do anything with that?

Jonathan Abrams:

In terms of writing the call processing software, I was a very junior software engineer amongst thousands, but this Achoo tool that I had created got some attention. And because of that, I was then offered a different job within Nortel; they called it the computing technology lab. And I took that job. That was around the time that Java came out and we did a lot of work very early on Java at this computer technology lab. I don’t think Nortel ended up turning any of that stuff into any actual real products, but I got the idea that I really needed to move to Silicon Valley. So I emailed my resume to Netscape and Yahoo. I never got a reply from Yahoo, but Netscape hired me. And part of why they hired me is because I had experience in Java. And back then, anybody with a few months of experience in Java was an expert in Java because it was brand new. So I moved to Silicon Valley and worked at Netscape.

Aaron Dinin:

So now we’ve got Jonathan thinking a lot about Yahoo, which again is one of those companies that started something huge before ultimately being surpassed. And then he moves to Netscape, which is yet another company that would be the forerunner to a bunch of much bigger companies. And to be clear, I’m not highlighting any of this because it’s bad. In fact, the opposite is true. What Jonathan is demonstrating is a keen ability to be on the leading edge of where technology is taking us. That’s a great thing because that’s where entrepreneurial opportunities are most likely to exist. But it also comes with its fair share of risk because you’re operating in a very unpredictable environment where nobody can definitively know when a technology is going to mature into the mainstream.

Heck we can say that with technologies on the leading edge today. Things like 3D printing, augmented reality, self-driving cars and genomic sequencing, we know these things are going to change the world, we just don’t quite know the time horizons on their path toward consumer level maturity. But that’s okay. That uncertainty doesn’t stop an entrepreneur like Jonathan, instead he keeps tinkering and experimenting, which is actually what led him to his first independent startup, a company called Hotlinks.

Jonathan Abrams:

Hotlinks was a little, I guess, similar in some ways to that idea I had with the Achoo thing that I built at Nortel, but instead of for one company, I thought each person should have their own little sort of network and directory of their favorite bookmarks or websites and then they could also share them with other people. So that was the idea of Hotlinks. The idea literally was what we today call social bookmarking. But in 1999, we weren’t really using the social term yet. So instead we called it an online bookmarking community, which is a lot more awkward than social bookmarking, but that’s what we called it back in ’99.

Really the high level vision was that people should just share links with each other, and that wasn’t really a thing in ’99. We did have AltaVista and search engines, and I think Google was fairly new at the time. And obviously we had had web portals like Lycos and Yahoo, but we didn’t really have a thing where regular people on the internet were really sharing links with each other. And this was way before Digg or Pinterest or anything like that.

Aaron Dinin:

As you heard Jonathan mention, Hotlinks was also social bookmarking before social bookmarking became a thing. We’ve of course explored social bookmarking with Joshua Schachter, Founder of Delicious, the first official social bookmarking site if you want to call it that, back in Web Masters episode number nine. Be sure to check it out. On that episode, Joshua told us he launched Delicious in 2003. Since Hotlinks existed in the ’90s, that means again we’ve got Jonathan moving really early in the market. Are you starting to see the pattern I’m talking about? Only this time things are a little different. Jonathan is building Hotlinks in the middle of the late ’90s dot-com boom, which you think might make things easier, but according to him, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Jonathan Abrams:

In retrospect, the number of people who were online back in ’99 was actually quite small compared to today. So I actually think that the vision for Hotlinks was a little too early back then, and there were so many internet startups because it was the dot-com boom. So it was actually a time where it was very noisy and it was very competitive, it was very hard to actually get people’s attention. And shortly after we launched Hotlinks, there are at least five other competitors, all doing pretty much the same thing, all of which are defunct. I don’t think any of them are still around today. So it was actually kind of hard to get people’s attention when you had this sort of boom of way too many internet startups competing for really a very meager amount of people who actually were online back 20 years ago.

Aaron Dinin:

So it sounds like you’re arguing in a way the internet boom actually made it harder to build a company.

Jonathan Abrams:

Yeah. I mean, we really were launching the company and building it during the boom. And the boom didn’t really last that long, it was like a year, which is not really a lot of time. And with Hotlinks, it was basically a year where everything was really cuckoo, where a startup would have to almost beg to get a landlord to lease you an office or a lawyer or a PR firm to agree to take you on as a client. And everybody was doing all sorts of irrational things. Companies were paying Yahoo to integrate with you rather than getting paid to offer a product to people. And then very quickly it all blew up with the dot-com crash and it was sort of nuclear winter for the internet. And the time from the boom to the crash wasn’t really that long.

Aaron Dinin:

In the wake of the dot-com crash, Hotlinks would go on to merge with another company and Jonathan would step away from the project. Worth noting, he actually had one more stop on his journey before founding Friendster that was not surprisingly a continuation of his pattern.

Jonathan Abrams:

I actually joined another company as the head of engineering, another startup. And that company was actually very interestingly letting people share multimedia with other people over phones. And one of their investors was Nokia. This was 2001, so many years before the iPhone. Again, another company that was way too early. But a lot of what that company was doing is commonplace today. It was people sharing multimedia messages and pictures with friends over phones, but it was way too early.

Aaron Dinin:

That stop didn’t last long and Jonathan found himself in Silicon Valley post boom with a lot of time on his hands and not a lot of opportunities. Oddly enough, it’s actually this post-apocalyptic tech world that ends up being a perfect environment in which to incubate Friendster.

Jonathan Abrams:

Now it’s 2002, a really, really dead time in Silicon Valley. People had sort of given up on the internet and the web. People weren’t really starting new startups. People weren’t really that excited about the internet anymore after the crash, and it was a really slow time. There wasn’t a lot going on. People weren’t really calling me up and offering me jobs or telling me about this new startup ideas they were working on or anything like that. It was just really a pretty dormant time.

So I started thinking about this really wacky idea I had of a different way that the internet could work, where you would use your real name, your real photo and your real life social identity would be reflected online. Because when I had moved to Silicon Valley from Canada, I didn’t know anybody. I hadn’t gone to Stanford. I had no network. And within a few years I had raised my first million dollars of venture capital funding for Hotlinks. And the way I’d done that was a lot of networking; going to a lot of events and doing a lot of networking very deliberately because I had to build my Silicon Valley network from scratch since I was from another country.

And most of the online services that were popular in the web were anonymous or pseudonymous. They didn’t really reflect anything to do with your real life. So we all know about the Stanley Milgram’s small-world theory, the six degrees of separation. What if you could actually reflect online your real life. Bring that real life social context in your real life of maybe it’s your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors, your family, people you know, but reflect that in a different way that the web could work. And it was just a wacky idea, but there was so little going on that I didn’t really have that much else to distract me from this idea, and I had plenty of time to noodle on it. So I had very low expectations, but I came up with the name Friendster and I built a prototype.

Aaron Dinin:

So you personally built the first version of Friendster? It wasn’t something you incubated somewhere or developed with a team?

Jonathan Abrams:

I coded it myself like I’ve done pretty much at all the companies I founded. And like I said, not a lot going on back then. So I created this prototype and some friends who asked me, “Jonathan, what are you working on?” I told them, “Well, I’ve got this idea. It’s going to be like a website and you’re going to use your real name and photo and people you know in real life will be on a web page and other people can go and look at it. And then it’ll send you a message and say, are you really Jonathan’s friend? Yes or no. And you’d say yes, and then you’d be added to it.” And people generally thought that was the dumbest idea I ever had.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s funny to imagine there was a time when that sounded dumb. I guess, to be fair, I suppose social media still kind of sounds a little dumb if you stop and think about it. So anyway, you went ahead and launched it, even though people thought it sounded dumb.

Jonathan Abrams:

I just invited a few friends. And the people I invited were not actually the business people who were giving me the advice that it was a stupid idea, they were just sort of people who I was socially friends with, who I just thought might find it fun. And they immediately started using it, inviting other people. And then those people invited other people and those people invited other people and people actually found it quite fascinating to see real people they knew on a webpage.

Aaron Dinin:

And this was a big deal, because at that time, it wasn’t very common to use your real identity online.

Jonathan Abrams:

Yeah. It’s funny, because back when I was using BBSs and modems, a lot of it was with pseudonyms, and then Usenet. And I think because Usenet was so academic, I mean, a lot of people back then if you had an internet account, it was maybe through your employer or a university or your science lab or something like that. And I think on Usenet, you did use real names. But most of the web and internet things prior to Friendster were using either anonymous or pseudonyms and aliases, handles. That was pretty common. And I think people back then just thought the idea of actually putting your real identity on the internet to be kind of weird. There was dating sites. So Match.com and many other dating sites, predate Friendster and there was of course a stigma to dating online. So you would try to do it and hope your friends didn’t know, and Friendster flip that upside down. You would actually invite your friends to do it with you rather than hope they didn’t notice that you were on Match.com.

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds like even you were skeptical of your own idea. Can you describe the environment a bit more back then and why the idea of Friendster would have seemed so problematic.

Jonathan Abrams:

As an entrepreneur, I had done a lot of networking deliberately because you needed to meet potential investors and you needed to network that way. But I think people who are not necessarily entrepreneurs are looking for dates, the idea that they would sort of be networking, that they would be mapping out their social graph on the internet, that was just kind of a weird idea. I don’t think anybody had really thought that was something that regular people would want to do. I had no idea that people would really do this. It was just sort of a silly idea in my head that combined a lot of different thoughts I had from experiences of using BBSs and using the web as well as having to do a lot of networking as an entrepreneur. And I just had this idea that it would be cool for you to be able to see your friends’ friends.

The six degrees is not really that interesting. It’s really not interesting if somehow I have connection to the Pope via six degrees, but it is interesting, I think to see your friends’ friends, and to see that sort of easily efficiently displayed was not something that was available before. So I just thought it would be interesting, but there was a lot of skepticism. A lot of people thought that the idea that anybody would be comfortable using your real name and photo on the internet, people were very skeptical of that. And this of course is an era also where a lot of people were skeptical that you would ever bank online or shop online. So it was a different era in terms of the web and the internet becoming just a part of our daily lives.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So that’s why it didn’t seem like it would work, but it obviously worked really well. So why do you think that happened? Why were people suddenly willing to post online with their real identities?

Jonathan Abrams:

I think the way it worked really was that just, I used my real name and then I invited people and they used their real name and then they invited people. And so when you joined and you saw, oh, here are people I know. And the whole point is that it’s real identity. And the idea that you would log onto something instead of seeing a bunch of random people on the internet that might live thousands of miles away, that you actually saw people you had a real life social connection to with their real names and real photos, that was just a completely different experience. So it was really obvious that that was the whole point of it. And so people would use their real name. And the idea was you were getting invited to this thing by somebody you knew.

And sometimes people were like, “What is this?” And they would ignore the invitation and they would get three more, all with the name of somebody you actually know in real life inviting you to this. So finally they’d succumb, they check it out and then they’d see a whole bunch of people they knew and they just found it very compelling and then they’d start to invite people.

Aaron Dinin:

And did it always stay real people or… I mean, I’m sure it didn’t because if we know anything about the web it’s that when something gets popular, people start trying to exploit it. So I guess the better question is, when did people start trying to create fake accounts and fake profiles?

Jonathan Abrams:

Eventually once it got to have millions of users, which happened fairly fast, there were people who started putting up fake profiles and there was a whole sort of fake controversy about that. There were people who thought that that’s what people really liked and that we were somehow mean jerks for deleting fake profiles. But in reality, we got complaints from users about the fake profiles. So for every person who thought it was funny, there were five people who thought it was actually interfering with their experience. And ultimately it’s many years since then, but you look at Facebook and it’s a ubiquitous service now used by billions of people and everybody’s using their real name.

And on Twitter where you can use fake names, the vast majority I think of people are using their real name on Twitter. And of the people that I follow on Twitter, there might be a couple parody accounts, but the vast majority of people are real people. They’re entrepreneurs, journalists, engineers, interesting people, some who I know, some who I don’t know, but all using their real name. So I think using real names and having it not just be sort of fun and games, but really having it be a little bit more real was certainly a key part of Friendster.

Aaron Dinin:

So you said that it got to a million users really quickly, but this was just a project you coded on your own. So how did you handle that kind of growth?

Jonathan Abrams:

It basically grew exponentially from the beginning. I invited a few people and they invited people and they invited people and it just started growing virally. And so very quickly it went from, this is a weird idea I have, who knows if this would ever work, to, hey, uh-oh, this thing is growing very fast. This is going to need more servers. This is going to need more money. I’m not going to be able to just deal with this without any additional resources.

So it went fairly quickly from an idea that people were skeptical of to needing to raise money. And initially, I raised a fairly modest amount of money by today’s standards, by some angel investors. And then it seemed like a long time. I mean, that year was such a busy year because we were not really having fun. I had a small team, we were working very hard because it was growing very fast and it was very challenging scaling it. So we were probably having more stress than we were fun. But by the end of that year, Friendster had grown to millions of users and Friendster had been written about in so many magazines and newspapers and gotten so much attention so quickly as this new phenomenon that we had a lot of venture capital firms who were interested in investing.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s here where the story of Friendster starts to take its place in popular startup lore. By this point, as Jonathan mentioned, Friendster is getting an outrageous amount of attention. And with attention comes intrigue and rumors and finger pointing and armchair quarterbacking, and perhaps most annoying of all, copycat startups.

Jonathan Abrams:

The truth is, there was no point that we really could stand back and enjoy it because we went from initially being a period where it was the dot-com crash, everybody thought that the internet and the web was a complete failure and a disaster. And then we had this crazy idea that a lot of people thought would never work. That it was a ridiculous idea. And there was a lot of skepticism. And then it launched and it started growing. And then all of a sudden it was very challenging to keep up with the growth. And we also were dealing with all the weird stress of all these copycats and competitors. And MySpace and Facebook we’re not even close to the first. There were many others, most of which people today don’t remember because many of them didn’t really go anywhere.

But it was a very strange thing that we were a very young company. We were not Microsoft or some big, huge company, but people were already trying to kill us and replace us even though we were still a teeny upstart ourselves. And back then you couldn’t click a button and get virtual service from Amazon. You had to buy the service. You had to put the service in a data center. It was a lot of work and it was much more difficult than today. We didn’t really have the open source technologies that you have today. So it was actually pretty challenging. And instead of really being able to enjoy it, we were probably just pretty stressed and tired most of the time.

Aaron Dinin:

And so what were you thinking as you were watching all these competitors flood into the market you’d only just created?

Jonathan Abrams:

It was actually very strange because we were a very small new company, and so when I was at Netscape and Microsoft decided to launch Internet Explorer, initially it was pretty crappy and it was fine. And then Internet Explorer 2 was still pretty crappy, but Microsoft just keeps going and going. And by Internet Explorer 3 and all the things that Microsoft had done to sort of bribe computer manufacturers to pre-install Internet Explorer, by that point, it started to become a big problem for Netscape. But at that point, Netscape was a public company. They had thousands of employees, they were famous. It was a big company.

At Friendster, we were this teeny new little thing. It was only a few months earlier that I had had this crazy idea that we didn’t even know if anybody would do. And now all of a sudden, well guess what, it turns out people do like this idea and people are using it and they’re inviting their friends. And now all these people are writing about us in newspapers and magazines and all these other people are copying us. That was really weird when you’re still such a young struggling company. And so simultaneously we had a lot of skepticism whether social networking was a fad, whether it would end up just being a feature of Yahoo and whether you could make any money from social networking. All those things, there was so much skepticism and doubt about those things especially coming after the sort of hangover of the dot-com crash. But at the same time, we had all these people copying us and trying to compete with us. It was a very weird combination.

Aaron Dinin:

At this point, Jonathan is basically fighting a war on three fronts. He’s fighting public perception that social networking is a fad. He’s fighting the dozens of other companies trying to unseat him. And he’s fighting to support the exponential growth of his tiny startup. Put all those things together and it’s clear to Jonathan that he needs help. The general narrative from the time is that Google offered Jonathan $30 million for Friendster, which was basically a year old at this point. That’s certainly not a bad outcome for a year’s worth of work. Besides the Google stock he’d have received would be worth over a billion dollars today. But Jonathan also had a bunch of high powered and successful investors telling him they could help turn Friendster into a multi-billion dollar company.

In other words, Jonathan had a choice to make if he wanted to scale Friendster, move it into a big company like Google with more resources or take a large chunk of venture capital and scale it himself. He chose the VC route. Friendster lost the market to competitors and his decision to reject Google became one of the cautionary tales for startup founders everywhere. In fact, for a while, if you pitched a VC with your idea “for the next Facebook,” the rebuttal would usually be something like, “Well, how do I know this isn’t going to be the next Friendster?” But of course that’s a very simplified version of a much more complex series of decisions.

Jonathan Abrams:

The press coverage that Friendster received back then was very bad and often inaccurate. A lot of times, things were written about Friendster that weren’t true. Google did try to buy Friendster, so did other companies. And this was around the same time that we were negotiating to raise around a venture capital funding. And ultimately we thought we had something that was growing exponentially. We thought we’ve really built the next big thing here. And instead of just selling it early, we thought it could be an independent company and be worth billions of dollars and be very successful. And we thought that we were raising money from the folks that had helped other famous internet companies become big, successful, large companies and would help us the same way. So we decided not to sell the company to Google.

Aaron Dinin:

Do you regret that decision?

Jonathan Abrams:

In retrospect, knowing what happened with Friendster that Friendster went through six CEOs and I was pushed out and the company really failed to fulfill its potential. Obviously in the benefit of knowing that, we probably would have been better off selling the company to Google. But I think the idea of selling out so early when we were at the time, the leader of this whole new social media industry, I think it was very reasonable for us to think that we had much greater potential to remain as an independent company.

Aaron Dinin:

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back and think that Google’s $30 million offer had been a good deal, but let’s look at the offer in context. First of all, as Jonathan points out, it’s not like selling to Google was a guarantee of success.

Jonathan Abrams:

If we had sold that company to Google, I looked at the fact that Orkut and Google Buzz and Google+ were ultimately not successful. And then they also had a lot of other smart social media entrepreneurs whose companies were acquired at Google, including Max Levchin with Slide.com, Dennis Crowley with Dodgeball before he created Foursquare, Seth from Meebo and Jyri with Jaiku, none of those people ended up flourishing and building some new successful social business at Google. So in all likelihood, probably something similar would have happened had we early on been swallowed up by a bigger company.

Aaron Dinin:

The second issue with selling to Google was that it would have meant giving up on a much bigger vision for what Friendster could have become. And to be fair, Jonathan wasn’t wrong in thinking social networks had huge potential. After all, we live in a world dominated by enormous social networking platforms. Friendster very well could have been one of those platforms, but at least according to Jonathan, a cascade of poor management decisions prevented it from happening. There was nothing he could do about it after getting pushed aside as CEO.

Jonathan Abrams:

So it was pretty common back then that the VCs would hire a so-called experienced CEO to replace a founding CEO. In fact, according to Noam Wasserman, who used to study this at Harvard business school, back around the time this happened at Friendster, I think the stats were that two out of three or three out of four founding CEOs would be replaced. So it wasn’t really unexpected. I think the unfortunate thing is that the company went through six CEOs between raising venture capital in 2003, and the company being acquired in 2009. And the way it happened, it wasn’t that the board conducted a thorough performance evaluation and said, “Here’s your goals and expectations as CEO, and this is what you’re expected to do.” And then I failed to meet those goals. It wasn’t like that.

I was giving a keynote speech at a conference out of town and they had a secret meeting and said, “Let’s replace Jonathan.” And that did not go very well. And if I had been pushed out but the company had gone on to great success, that would’ve been one thing. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Aaron Dinin:

Would you mind sharing what did happen?

Jonathan Abrams:

So we ended up embarking on a CEO search. That was also an interesting process. We pursued somebody who was never going to take the job. And when that finally fizzled out, I was basically given the choice between the two remaining candidates, and one of whom was up for the job of being CEO of Friendster and had never even logged in and bothered to use the product. So we ended up going with somebody from the media in the Hollywood business which had also been tried at Excite and Yahoo. That’s what happened. And I was still at the company after that and I had a lot of things I wanted us to do.

I had some companies that were interested in building essentially apps on top of the social graph of Friendster and really turning Friendster into a platform a few years before Facebook did that. But I wasn’t CEO anymore and I wasn’t really able to get those things to happen, and I had a lot of other ideas related to events and music and things that I wanted to do, but I just really wasn’t able to get those things to happen. So eventually I stopped working at Friendster. And then after several different CEOs and the company not being managed terribly well, eventually I was off the board and eventually they sold the company. And then the company they sold Friendster to in Asia, they turned around and sold all of our patents to Mark Zuckerberg.

Aaron Dinin:

In a way, it sounds like you were kind of envisioning the world Mark Zuckerberg would go on to create with Facebook, and the biggest obstacle to getting there wasn’t that Friendster was the wrong platform, it was management decisions that you couldn’t control. Is that a reasonable summary?

Jonathan Abrams:

I mean, sometimes I think we’re tired of talking about it, especially since it’s so long ago and we’ve done so many things since then. I think we’re all proud of Friendster and what we did to sort of start an entire industry. And I think we certainly have regrets because I had early angel investors, early employees who I think were correct to take that bet on us and the idea and me, and I think they were correct in believing very early in this vision that we had. And ideally they would have all been rewarded with Friendster becoming a hugely successful company and them all making a lot of money. And so it’s always going to be a disappointment and frustration to me that that didn’t happen. And it’s all very unnecessary.

There’s all sorts of myths about Friendster that we were too early or that we ruined things by deleting fake profiles. And the reality is, the company just was not managed well, it did not execute well and none of that needed to happen. And if we hadn’t gone through so many CEOs, if I had remained in charge or somebody else was in charge that was doing the right things, if I’d been able to execute on that vision I had and continue to build the things that I wanted to build at Friendster, I think Friendster could have been a very successful company and worth billions of dollars. We’ll never really know, but I think it wasn’t necessary that Friendster ended up being the leader in an industry that we started and then having such a disappointing outcome.

Aaron Dinin:

Looking back, does that make you angry or frustrated in any way?

Jonathan Abrams:

Yeah, I’ll always be frustrated by that. But being an entrepreneur is really hard and most entrepreneurs and most startups fail and you have to realize that and be prepared for that. The good news is that there are a lot of less privileged types of entrepreneurs in the world who don’t have venture capital funding and they mortgage their house to start their business, and they might end up bankrupt when the business fails. So as frustrating as it is that Friendster went through six CEOs in six years and all these things happened, there are a lot of people who are not lucky as me that people give you millions of dollars to go and execute your ideas. So there’s a lot of frustrating parts about Friendster, but there are also a lot of good parts and there are parts that we were proud of and there are parts we learned from.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s fair. And you also helped create an enormously important industry, which is pretty cool too, I would think. But it’s also an industry that’s had its fair share of problems since then. So I guess looking at the social media landscape now, what do you think about the ways platforms are handling things?

Jonathan Abrams:

Pretty early on, we started to see early glimpses back then, which is so many years ago, of things that are commonplace today. I think John Kerry was trying to use it for his presidential campaign and posting things on Friendster. And this was so early. I mean, Friendster was like a year old. And I remember celebrities were posting engagements on Friendster and it was very, very early in what today is very commonplace about how influencers and celebrities and politicians use social media, but it still started pretty early. And then when Myspace started, I think they had a lot of problems with sex predators and underage people and a lot of that kind of stuff. And I was always surprised that that didn’t get more regulatory scrutiny.

Aaron Dinin:

Like what kinds of regulatory scrutiny?

Jonathan Abrams:

I always thought that social networking services for minors, for people below 18 is a bad idea and I still think that. When I started Friendster, there wasn’t really anything like it. There were dating sites and of course the dating sites were, I think only for 18 and above. And so when I started Friendster and got people to actually use their real photo and name on the internet, that was quite revolutionary and quite counter-intuitive and something that a lot of people didn’t think people would really do and they did. But the idea that you would do that and make it accessible to children just seemed reckless. And I never intended that. I still think it’s a bad idea because obviously it’s exposing children to risks. I just think it’s a bad idea.

And if I was writing the laws, I’d probably say that those services should really only be available to people 18 and above. And you could always create alternative types of services for younger people where there’s parental controls and information isn’t public. And they can chat with their friends, but not necessarily post things that anybody in the world could see.

Social networking, just like anything is a tool, just like the web, just like the computer, and it can be used and it can be abused. And there are people who’ve lost jobs or suffered in all sorts of different ways by posting things they shouldn’t have posted on social networks because social networks make it much easier to post on the internet than creating your own website or blog. So there’s been a lot of people who’ve gotten in trouble for things they’ve posted, and that seems to me like the kind of thing that really should probably only available to adults. If an adult gets themselves into trouble, well, they’re an adult, they’re supposed to be responsible. But probably doesn’t seem like a good idea for young people who are not an adult to be posting things on the internet that will be up there potentially forever and anybody in the world could see. That just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Aaron Dinin:

So are you saying you think social media platforms should have more government regulation?

Jonathan Abrams:

I don’t know. I mean, I think there are questions about regulation, but in all likelihood, the legislatures understand the technology so poorly. They’ll never do the correct legislation and they often make it worse. I think these big companies to really solve the problem, they would first, I guess, need to prioritize it. And the ad-based business model seems to be one that sort of leads to a platform where outrage and outrageous content and people getting upset and basically anything that increases engagement is going to be what’s sort of compatible and preferable for an ad-based business model. How you address that, it’s a big question.

And I don’t think it’s just social media because I actually think the traditional media today also does this. I think the cable news networks are doing the exact same thing. They’re not necessarily putting on the most educational content. They’re putting on content that will outrage people, and even newspapers have clickbait headlines. So you can blame the social platforms, but the problem is bigger than that.

Aaron Dinin:

Does that mean the bigger issue is advertising models? Do we need a subscription supported social media platform rather than ad supported? Would that help solve the problem? Should Friendster have set the precedent of charging users rather than advertising to them?

Jonathan Abrams:

So even though we did have ads running on the site, there was always these rumors that weren’t true, and there was always skepticism about the business model. And at one point, there was an article in a newspaper saying that we were going to change Friendster to be a paid site and you have to pay for it rather than it being free. And we got thousands of handwritten agonized notes in the mail, letters to us, which is kind of bizarre since we were an internet site. People could just sent us an email, I guess. But we got thousands of handwritten letters in the mail saying, “Please don’t charge for Friendster. I won’t be able to use it.”

Aaron Dinin:

Writing letters to an internet company. It’s a little weird.

Jonathan Abrams:

It was weird. I think I still have them somewhere in a drawer. It was weird. But there were a lot of weird things that happened.

Aaron Dinin:

I mean, sure. The entire experience must have been crazy. And looking back on it, to have launched social networking as we know it must have been well, weird. Right?

Jonathan Abrams:

Yeah. I mean, a part of the original idea of Friendster was to create an experience that was different than you just talking to yourself or being exposed to everybody in the world. Because the whole idea of that social graph was that Friendster create experiences that may be involved two degrees or three degrees. And in the end, I think that was computationally difficult and got diluted and MySpace didn’t even try to do that kind of thing. And then Facebook had something similar because it was specific colleges were each their own network initially, but then of course they expanded way beyond that.

And so I think what today we have is this sort of giant social media system where everybody’s exposed to everybody and that’s not necessarily a good thing. And that did go beyond my original idea of how it should work, where it would be a little bit more like real life. And in real life, if you go to a party at your friend’s house and say something stupid, 20 people are going to hear it, but not the entire world. And so I think that in some ways, social media did end up going to an extreme beyond what I had envisioned.

Aaron Dinin:

And so social media as we know it now isn’t what you’d envisioned or predicted or hoped to build?

Jonathan Abrams:

Social networking really began with real friends. That’s why people liked that, that’s why it grew and that’s how it grew. But then once it has grown to these huge, huge platforms with the size they are today, you then end up having a system where people post stuff and people that they have no social connection to see it. It’s now gotten to that extreme. We have influencers and celebrities and people just sort of using social platforms to just broadcast to the world. But they never would have gotten that big if it wasn’t for the initially compelling aspect of seeing people you’d actually did know. And that’s why it started, and that’s why people liked it, and that’s why it grew. But now it’s gotten saturated. Everybody’s on the social networks. So now it’s sort of morphed into this thing where celebrities, influencers are just posting something and it’s being broadcast to everybody, even though the potential of social media is to be much more of a personalized, medium than a mass medium. As it got to ubiquity and saturation, social media has become mass media.

Aaron Dinin:

In a way it kind of sounds like your original vision for Friendster is what the world needs now. We need to go back to it because we’re finally ready for these small intimate social networks rather than what you’ve described as mass media versions of social networks. Have you ever thought about relaunching Friendster?

Jonathan Abrams:

Oh yeah. I get requests like that all the time. Literally. We get emails and I often get messages on Facebook. There’s some weird tab in Facebook where you can see messages from people that you’re actually not friends with. Sort of like the spam section on Facebook. But we get messages all the time from people asking us to bring back Friendster. And they’re tired of the current big social platforms, and they don’t really trust them either. There’s been so many scandals and things, Cambridge Analytica, and so many problems, toxicity and harassment. So we actually get requested often for us to bring back Friendster and create some new, better alternative to today’s social platforms.

Aaron Dinin:

And so are you going to do it?

Jonathan Abrams:

No, we are not. In fact, not even really investing in social media. I mean, we get pitches every day by people who say they’ve invented the new social app or social network, but none of them ever really seem that innovative. When we started Friendster, people thought it was a crazy idea. And so I think for something to have a chance to start from scratch today and become a successful large company, it would also need to be a new, crazy idea and I just haven’t seen that.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, there you have it. From the man who was the first person crazy enough to build a business around the idea of people posting real pictures of themselves online and connecting with their real friends, the next big thing in social media innovation has to sound crazy too and we’re just not there yet. But be warned as Jonathan’s story reminds us, it’s hard to predict exactly what the next big thing is and when it’s going to take off. So if you do decide to get a bit crazy out there on the leading edge of technology, be prepared for more than a few wrong guesses. That’s okay. As Jonathan’s story also reminds us, it’s all part of the learning process.

Hey, and speaking of the learning process, I hope you learned something valuable from this episode of Web Masters. And if you did, or really, even if you didn’t, please take a moment to make sure you’re subscribed on your podcasting app of choice so you get the next episode as soon as it’s released. Also, if you’d be so kind, leave a nice review. Those really help us grow the audience and get more guests like Jonathan. Jonathan by the way is now a BC himself, which you heard him alluding to a bit at the end. You can see what he’s up to or even pitch him a crazy idea by finding him on Twitter. He’s @abrams. You can pitch us a crazy idea on Twitter too I suppose. We’re @WebMastersPod, and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. You can also find me on medium.com just by searching my name. Medium is where I publish lots of articles about entrepreneurship and social media if you’re into those kinds of things, which since you’re listening to this, I assume you are.

A quick thanks to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for everything he does to keep these episodes sounding great. I also want to thank our sponsor Latona’s for making this podcast possible. If you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, don’t forget to check out latonas.com. And of course, don’t forget to join us again for the next episode of Web Masters, which we’ll be releasing in just a few days. In the meantime, well, it’s time for me to sign off.