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Friend Spam

The founder of Friendster looks at the revolution he started.

Five years ago, I imagined a website that would show how people were connected to each other in real life, so I built a prototype called ­Friendster. I decided that one of its central features would be a friend confirmation process. When you wanted to add someone as your friend, an e‑mail notification was sent with your request. If–and only if–the person approved your request, you were both listed as each other’s friends. Five years later, I am paying the price for this innovation as I face an avalanche of friend spam. I get several friend requests per day from Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, and also from social-media services such as Yelp, Flickr, and Pownce.

What is Pownce, you ask? Let’s take a step back. The “micro­blogging” site Twitter was launched in 2006 by Blogger cofounder Evan ­Williams to help people update their friends via phone or Web with short messages about their current whereabouts or thoughts (see “What Is He Doing?”). Twitter was all the rage at March’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, seemingly supplanting a predecessor called Dodgeball, but by May, überblog Techcrunch had proclaimed that people were already “making the switch from Twitter to Jaiku.”

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I never even got a chance to try Jaiku before Pownce launched in late June. Pownce was billed as a file-­sharing service but looked a lot like Twitter. Still not open to the general public, it has received tremendous hype thanks to its association with the cofounder of Digg. (For a review of the microblogging phenomenon, see “Trivial Pursuits”.)

The press, bloggers, and the investment community are excitedly following every shift in buzz, from Dodgeball to Twitter to ­Pownce, or from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook. Since the launch of the Facebook Platform in May, the press and many so-called experts have finally begun recognizing the value of Facebook’s “social graph”–the map of connections between real friends. But ironically, as the tech elite have begun to deride MySpace’s seizure-inducing page designs and promiscuous friend seekers, Facebook’s clean user interface and focus on real friends faces an onslaught of new users and pointless applications where tattooed zombies buy drinks for your top friends.

However this all plays out, it’s clear that these sites are not going to go away. In 2004, VCs bemoaned any further investment in social-­networking companies, and pundits argued that social-­networking sites would not endure as stand-alone destinations. Today, they are some of the biggest sites on the Web, and we have an entire industry of widget and tool providers building on top of the social-­networking ecosystem. There are niche social-­networking sites for moms, dogs, pagans, and bodybuilders. Ten years ago I moved to Silicon Valley to work at Netscape. Today, Netscape cofounder Marc ­Andreessen has a startup called Ning, which helps people–what else–create their own social-networking sites.

So what advice do I have for dealing with the friend spam and keeping on top of all these new services? Every once in a while, turn off your computer and go hang out with your friends.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams is founder and CEO of the events-sharing service Socializr.

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