I just started on Friendster— and I think it’s a totally briliant idea. Something about it just sucked me in, in a way that no other community has since MUDs.
Why does it feel so good? I think the magic ingredient of Friendster is exclusivity. “Omit the thing that no one thought of leaving out” — what Friendster somehow omitted was a lot of the arseholes on the Internet. By limiting the extent to which you may roam, the signal is boosted. My friends are “cool”, so their friends are probably “cool”, etc. I like performing a search for people and not being overwhelmed with results. It gets boring to me after about three degrees anyway (or, more interesting!). By four degrees, most commonality is just by coincidence anyway.
There’s also a “me generation” ego trip thing going on with the profiles and testimonials. You want me to write about myself? Sure, I could write all day about myself. And of course I love hearing how great I am from my friends. And I always love a reason to tell my friends how great they are.
So what’s the makeup of this community? From my limited viewpoint (3500 people, out of how many?) it seems to be a motley crew of people in the edge cultures (punks, gays/lesbians, goths, nerds, artists, indie rockers, and hybrids therein). Of course they’re the most interesting people on the block— well educated, smart, driven, etc. But for all I know, I am just connected to a node of Friendster that’s full of dorks like me, and there’s a parallel jock node that I’m fully isolated from. (how often do you get to use the term “parallel jock node”?) But something tells me that the service is more desirable among the edge cultures than it is among the rest of the world. Only a few big cities have edge cultures that reach critical mass in real life, so they need a geography-independent, social-connection-dependent service to build community. A community based solely on, say, sexual orientation doesn’t work very well because it ends up having to either adopt a “least common denominator” set of cultural standards or be based on sex alone. So if you’re not into dance music and Moulin Rouge (or midnight rendezvous in the park), you’re an outcast among the outcasts. (what other RL communities are like this? probably most of them, but the gay/lesbian subset is a nice example) Instead of that, you start with a group of people who are likely to be interesting and search from there for all the lesbians between 20 and 30…
Does Friendster scale well? If the network got very dense, you might limit the view to two degrees instead of four, or you’d want to develop an easier way of browsing/searching that doesn’t leave you overwhelmed. What would be the best way to browse the network as it gets bigger? So far the hypertext method seems to work. What about a 3D graphical method, like the thesaurus mapped in 3D space? I’ve never seen a convincing interactive 3D data representation (on a computer screen) that reveals enough actual data… they’re all flashy and animated in a novel sort of way, but not very useful. What I’d really like to see is an entire wall printout of Friendster connections and profiles, in 2D. Lines would connect friends, with testimonials written along them. On the macro level, this would show who the real connectors are. On the micro level, you’d get pictures and profiles and such. This could be represented on the computer with a zoom in/out feature, but I’d rather see it in high res / large scale.
What would be revealed by a comparison between, say, the musical tastes on Friendster vs. what we know from Google Zeitgeist?
extensions to Friendster…
A potentially fascinating extension of Friendster would be support for social clubs— offline communities centered around an activity, meeting periodically. I think Internet-organized social clubs, properly structured and branded, can become the moose lodges and bowling leagues of the 21st century. meetup.com has made a good start— but they’re not friend-based, so they’re kind of sketchy.
Another interesting extension would involve discussion forums/IM support and weak vs. strong links between people. If you want to IM with me, you need to establish a relationship via this service. If I just met you for the first time, I won’t want to give you full access to my network… lets establish a one-on-one weak link first, and then maybe I’ll introduce you to my friends.
Extending this on the community-wide scale, you might want someone with a meta-connector role who will try tying nodes of the network together that might benefit from a relationship. Someone (or a smart piece of software) at Friendster could look at all the nodes, finds nodes with significant overlap in interests, then send an introduction to a major connector in each node. “Hey danah, there’s this person you should meet…” A weak link is then created, which becomes stronger or dies off over time.