The Social Network Opens Today
The Social Network opens today, and given how popular and essential Facebook has become, it's easy to forget that this movie could have featured a different social network entirely. Even as late as 2006, it wasn't clear who the social networking winner would be. I wrote the following article in 2006 for MSNBC. MSNBC never ran it, but I got some great quotes from Cameron Winklevoss, one of the villains (or victims, depending on how you look at it) in The Social Network movie.
The MySpace That Wasn’t...
And The Ones Yet To Be
Figure skater Sasha Cohen is doing it. So is Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine (even this month’s Playboy!) without hearing about MySpace. With more than 75 million members, the social networking site dominates the news. Why did it succeed while others failed? And is there anything that can beat Rupert Murdoch’s $580 million dollar baby?
“We founded social networking,” says Andrew Weinreich, founder and former CEO of the now-defunct SixDegrees.com, often credited as the first website to employ social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory, which postulated that everyone is connected through common acquaintances. Weinreich founded SixDegrees in 1996, seven years before MySpace and eight years before Facebook. “We saw early on incredible excitement about the idea of linking friends to friends and friends of friends online,” he says.
Of course, this month the MySpace guys, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, are on the cover of Time’s 100 Most Influential People issue, and Weinreich is not. But he doesn’t hold any grudges. “Our story is a classic example of the technology needing to catch up with an idea,” he says.
Back in 1996, Weinreich says, few people had digital cameras. This presented a problem. “People were clamoring to put photos up on their pages,” he says. “We actually thought long and hard about having people mail us their photos and hiring interns to scan them in to the system. But with the time and the cost, there was no way we could do it. The big difference today is that the cost of technology is way down and there are a lot more people online. And nearly everyone has a digital camera.”
At its height, SixDegrees had more than 3.5 million members. Weinreich sold the site in December of 1999. Back then, its marketing department was talking about future plans to include instant messaging, online study groups and webcam services. But by the next December, SixDegrees was dead, a victim of the dot com bust.
“MySpace and Friendster started after we closed,” Weinreich says. “They’ve done a great job. Their timing was impeccable.”
Timing is a big part of why some social networking sites succeed and some don’t, says Harvard University graduate Cameron Winklevoss, one of the founders of ConnectU, a college student social networking site. In the winter of 2002, Winklevoss, his brother Tyler and friend Divya Narendra dreamed up a site that would help connect students from different colleges around Boston and eventually, the world. However, Winklevoss says, they got beat to the punch by three months—by a fellow Harvard student they had hired to program their site. That programmer was Mark Zuckerberg, and his website was Facebook, which now counts more than 7 million college students as members. According to Businessweek.com, Zuckerberg recently rebuffed an offer of $750 million for his site and is looking to sell for $2 billion. And Rolling Stone magazine featured a glowing profile on Zuckerberg in an issue last month. ConnectU, on the other hand, Winklevoss says, has 60,000 members and no such deals or feature stories in the works.
“When we asked [Mark] how our site was coming along, he told us, ‘Hey, I’m a little busy; I’ll get back to you,’” Winklevoss says. “A couple days later we read about Facebook in the college paper. It was pretty shocking.”
Winklevoss and his co-founders filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg for stealing their ideas and the computer code for their site. For his part, Zuckerberg has counter-sued for defamation of character and denied the allegations.
Winklevoss has very little bad to say about the Facebook site itself. “It really has become exactly what we envisioned it would be. The idea is solid. These sites are so hot right now that people are willing to invest millions.”
ConnectU is still actively recruiting new users, but Winklevoss acknowledges his site has little chance of winning the competition. “The idea of being a part of two similar social networks doesn’t appeal to people. And Facebook got there first. People don’t want to rebuild their network of friends on another site.”
Other social networking startups are hoping that isn’t true. TagWorld, founded in July 2005 and now in beta testing, hopes new features and functionality will lure users away from social networks like MySpace.
TagWorld combines a social network with drag-and-drop web publishing. Related photos, music clips, and videos are grouped together using “tags,” or keywords, helping the users who posted them connect with each other. With 1,613,122 users registered in less than a year, the site is off to a strong start, says TagWorld spokeswoman Paula Gould. “We’re not just a profile page. We give you a gigabyte of space and an easy way to create a website without knowing how to use HTML,” she says. “Any number of social networking sites have similar features, but we have them in one space.”
TagWorld is on a publicity blitz, putting up billboards throughout the Los Angeles area depicting TagWorld users and sponsoring a battle-of-the-bands contest to choose a song for the soundtrack of New Line Cinema’s new movie “Snakes on a Plane,” which has received enormous internet buzz.
“People are catching on to us,” Gould says. “We intend to be a part of social networking for a long period of time.”
“Some social networks stick and some don’t,” Winklevoss says. “Look at Google’s Orkut or Yahoo’s 360. They haven’t really worked. Friendster didn’t change for two years and they died… no one talks about them anymore.”
Well, hardly dead, but Friendster, founded two years before MySpace, has fallen behind its slightly younger cousin in terms of membership and buzz. Friendster started off strong, amassing one million users in a little over a year. Today, they claim more than 27 million. But users complained that the site was too slow and the interface too restrictive. “In the beginning we had too small a tech team in place,” says Friendster spokesman Jeff Roberto. “We couldn’t meet demand at peak hours of the day and we couldn’t launch new features. And that diverted a lot of traffic to other services.”
Former head of business development at Friendster, Jim Scheinman, is now vice president of business development and sales for Bebo.com, a high school and college social network with 22 million members worldwide and is more popular in the UK than MySpace. Jim cites user testimonials as evidence that not everyone is sold on MySpace. One user writes, “Bebo is by far the best social site available. It kicks MySpace's ass!!” Another observes, “Bebo is like a much less confusing MySpace.”
“We believe that the ultimate winner in the social network space will be the company with the best product and the most rabid and loyal customer base,” Scheinman says. “We don't actively encourage ‘Beboers’ to leave other SN sites and come to Bebo, they just do it on their own.” Although, he says, Bebo has to adjust its strategy to attract users in North America. “There are more entrenched players in those markets,” he says.
Weinreich, for one, doesn’t believe that MySpace will dominate forever. “The best applications we haven’t seen yet. Take eBay for example—why can’t the buyer and the seller be connected in a social network?” he muses. Weinreich and his partners plan to launch a new mobile social networking site in three to four weeks, the details of which he keeps a secret, with all the competition out there. “The best social network we have yet to see,” he says. “MySpace hasn’t fulfilled all of the vision.”