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Friendster Lost Lead Because of a Failure to Scale

Hey, this scaling stuff might just be important. Jim Scheinman, former Bebo and Friendster exec, puts the blame squarely on Friendster's inability to scale as why they lost the social networking race:

VB: Can you tell me a bit about what you learned in your time at Friendster?

JS: For me, it basically came down to failed execution on the technology side — we had millions of Friendster members begging us to get the site working faster so they could log in and spend hours social networking with their friends. I remember coming in to the office for months reading thousands of customer service emails telling us that if we didn’t get our site working better soon, they’d be ‘forced to join’ a new social networking site that had just launched called MySpace…the rest is history. To be fair to Friendster’s technology team at the time, they were on the forefront of many new scaling and database issues that web sites simply hadn’t had to deal with prior to Friendster. As is often the case, the early pioneer made critical mistakes that enabled later entrants to the market, MySpace, Facebook & Bebo to learn and excel. As a postscript to the story, it’s interesting to note that Kent Lindstrom (CEO of Friendster) and the rest of the team have done an outstanding job righting that ship.

Hopefully with all the quality information out now on the intertubes visionaries can concentrate on making good stuff instead of always fighting the plumbing. When you think about, is there any industry or group that gives so much value away for free as the software community? I don't think so. We are an amazingly giving group and the world has benefited greatly from that impulse. A thought for Thanksgiving.

Update: from Wallflower at the Web Party

But the board also lost sight of the task at hand, according to Kent Lindstrom, an early investor in Friendster and one of its first employees. As Friendster became more popular, its overwhelmed Web site became slower. Things would become so bad that a Friendster Web page took as long as 40 seconds to download. Yet, from where Mr. Lindstrom sat, technical difficulties proved too pedestrian for a board of this pedigree. The performance problems would come up, but the board devoted most of its time to talking about potential competitors and new features, such as the possibility of adding Internet phone services, or so-called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, to the site.

The stars would never sit back and say, ‘We really have to make this thing work,’ ” recalled Mr. Lindstrom, who is now president of Friendster. “They were talking about the next thing. Voice over Internet. Making Friendster work in different languages. Potential big advertising deals. Yet we didn’t solve the first basic problem: our site didn’t work.”
 Update: from Hacker News Discussion:
I have heard from insiders that the founder viewed this feature--the count of people 3 degrees away--as the central embodiment of the magic of Friendster, an absolute must-have. I.e. people added friends in great part in order to feel more connected to 100ks of people.
Others in the company begged to at least back it down to a count of people 2 degrees away; but the founder insisted that the magic was the 3-degree version. So instead the company pursued technical strategies to speed up the 3-degree count; don't know what those were precisely, but it seems that they were not pursued as zealously as they could be (due to VoIP, etc. distractions).
My understanding, by the way, is that the network size was computed on page-load until surprisingly very late, due to the perceived need for real-time. Even after it was cached, it was still computationally expensive, as your numbers were computed (roughly) every time your 3-degree network added a link.


Reader Comments (7)

I disagree with how Jim characterizes that time period. As part of the technology team that faced those scaling issues, I'll certainly agree that a lot of lessons were learned, too many to mention here.

But as to how Friendster squandered its traffic...I will say that in my opinion, a large burden needs to rest squarely on the shoulders of the product management teams. There was a clear failure to realize some simple truths:

- MySpace was going to win in traffic, for the plain fact that viewers did not have to be members, unlike Friendster.

- Once your social network was built on Friendster, there was little left to do, and there was a lot of floundering around guessing as to what could be added to the site to keep users engaged. An integrated IM platform was worked on in-house for months until finally scrapped as a lost cause. Then a couple months later, restarted the project as an outsourced/managed application. Features that were intended on harnessing the reputation/suggestions that were built-in to the social graph were only talked about, never materialized. (i.e., like Yelp!)

- The continued insistence by PM that calculating the 3 or 4 degrees of friends total had to be part of the main feature list. A huge amount of time, effort, and hardware was spent on keeping these supposedly important numbers updated real-time.

While it was a great place to learn scaling lessons (traffic rose from ~25M PVs per day to over ~105M when I was there, from Feb 2004 to Jan 2005) by no means was Friendster's downfall related only to technological failures.

November 29, 1990 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Allspaw

Why John, are you saying an executive may be wrongly shifting blame away from the executive team? I find that hard to believe :-)

November 29, 1990 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Hoff

Having a couple sources of data, it sounds like Friendster had trouble balancing the demands of existing users with the need to add features so they could attract new ones. John's correct that this is a classic product management issue.

November 29, 1990 | Unregistered CommenterBert Armijo

It's hard to believe they couldn't keep their members happy even when they were giving them all the answers to fix their problems. That's what's wrong with companies now, they don't aim to please their customers and end up losing them to their competitors who give members what they want.

December 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott

John Allspaw is 100% correct! I was there at the same time (25M to 105M MAU growth).

Jim is a good man but his accounting shows the finger blame game that killed Friendster. Friendster lost its lead because it was the most elaborate registration system on the web. It had no features, no direction, leadership fighting amongst themselves and not knowing or understanding what made Friendster popular in the 1st place. Friendster scaled way before mySpace took its lead away (see the growth).

Friendster failed in the summer of 2003 when it never took less than a minute to log into the site. Where it never took less than a minute to visit any page. Even pages that should/could have been static.

Debate about any missing feature after summer 2003 is less than moot.

September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Peterson

I'm revisiting this post because NPR will be doing an interesting story soon on the birth of the social networking industry and Friendster will obviously be a big part of it, and I'll be interviewed for the show. I wanted to make clear that I never intended to portray Friendster's failure as solely attributable to the technology issues, and agree with the comments from the folks who posted (many of whom are very talented former Friendster engineers). In fact, a while ago, I wrote a very lengthy piece on the 10 reasons Friendster Failed and Facebook won (and as you'll seem technology failures was just one of the 10 :)
Here's the link in case you want to read more:

March 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJim Scheinman

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