The UK's first popular social network has
given itself a makeover. Is it enough to bring people back?
Friends Reunited was one of the first
social networking sites to achieve mainstream prominence in the UK, using people's
tendency for nostalgia (and nosiness!) to tempt millions into signing up. The
results were nothing short of a social phenomenon. Over its storied history,
Friends Reunited created marriages, ended marriages, brought about countless
new births and was connected to at least one murder. Not bad going, considering
it was set up by a husband and wife team from Hertfordshire.
Launching in July 2000, Friends Reunited
grew quickly, attracting 2.5 million users within a year, and as many as 15
million at its peak. However, its pay-to-contact model meant that when the
novelty wore off, it was quickly supplanted by sites like MySpace (and later
Facebook), which allowed users unrestricted access to one another at no cost.
By the time ITV bought Friends Reunited for $280 million in 2005, it was
already looking a little creaky, and when the media giant failed to reverse the
site's fortunes, it was unceremoniously sold to Brightsolid in 2009 for the far
more modest sum of $38.08 million.
That brings us to the latest chapter of the
site's history: Brightsolid has just announced a relaunch of Friends Reunited,
intended to move the site away from its school-based roots and towards a new
nostalgia-based service. A fitting move, perhaps, for a site that no one
remembers visiting since 2002.
The site's new model encourages people to
use their profile to collect and pin 'memories'. These take the form of pages
dedicated to individual concepts - for example, a style of clothing, or a
particular cartoon series, or (appropriating the site's former basis) the
school you went to. These memories are then stored in a personal memory box
called a Keepsafe, which other users can browse, comment on, and join. The idea
is to expand beyond the site's former domain of schools, colleges and streets
to cover all shared experiences.
Organised online nostalgia is nothing new,
of course. In the earliest days of the internet, a vibrant emulation scene
allowed videogame fans to collect, trade and play childhood favourites on their
PCs. Sci-fi fans were collecting and trading hard-to-find episodes of shows
like Doctor Who on the internet long before anyone was releasing them
commercially. Even sites like YouTube rapidly filled up with the intros and
theme songs to old television shows. There's a huge appetite for the past,
especially when it's available on the easily accessible archive that is the
internet, so doesn't it make sense for someone to monetise that?
Well, maybe. The problem with that line of
thinking is that it assumes there's no other outlet for our reminiscences.
Nostalgia might be all that Friends Reunited has left, now that Facebook has
the monopoly on reconnecting old friends, but people sharing memories of the
past isn't the reason people meet; it's something that emerges naturally when
you put people with a shared past together. There's plenty of nostalgia on the
likes of Facebook and Twitter; it's just mixed in with the rest of the user
Brightsolid believes that its
professionally archived content, which includes lists of towns, places of
interest, clothing trends and historical events, can combine with
user-generated material to offer something new to its users. Citing Pinterest's
recent popularity explosion, Friends Reunited believes that users want to
'curate' material with which they have a genuine connection, and that its site
is a subsidiary of DC Thomson, publisher of The Beano and Jackie. Don’t let
that sway you!
However, at this early stage, even a
cursory glance of the memory listings reveals problems. The professional content
is easily spotted, not purely for its professionalism, but because it's the
most anodyne and uninspiring. A vein of insincere enthusiasm runs through its
language ("Lycra: Were you one of the culprits?") and the pitifully
low numbers displayed next to virtually every memory make the site feel devoid
of activity - the kiss of death for any social network.
However, those crimes pale in comparison to
the user-generated memories, which are poorly organised and plagued by users
who don't seem to understand the system - hardly their fault, of course, given
the unfamiliar model and lack of explanation offered by the site. As a result,
every category is littered with bad content. The 'Childhood Memories' section
contains multiple memories titled simply 'school', all with only one person (or
fewer) attached. Images are often entirely absent, though on the occasion that
the attached image was unmistakably a priapic male member, a blank placeholder
would undoubtedly have been preferable. It's barely off the blocks and already
in dire need of tighter editing, so who knows what it'd look like if users
actually did return in droves?
Friend Reunited's claims of originality
also rings false. There's a whiff of familiarity to the memories system, and
that's because it closely resembles Facebook's now-deprecated groups feature.
Users are invited to collect memories such as 'Commodore 64 better than
Spectrum!' and 'The Twix Tea-Sucking Incident'. Zuckerberg's empire may have
wearied itself on supervising such idiosyncratic discussions and removed them
entirely, but it's debatable whether the appetite for them is enough to tempt
users back to a brand as tainted as Friends Reunited.
The site has made two smart decisions,
though. The first is to remove all charges, offering a service that's free to
the user, although ad-supported. The second is to integrate with other
organisations, including other social networks. Previously an island unto
itself (the concept of social sharing was invented long after Friends Reunited
formed) the site now allows you to embed your Keepsafe in other social
networks, and even log in using your Facebook account. Ironically, despite its
new nostalgia focus, Friends Reunited is apparently content to let some bygones
Of course, whether the site works or not is
never going to matter if the users don't return in significant numbers.
Charting the fortunes of social networks is a difficult business at best, and
the success of a new one often relies on them being properly positioned when
the current incumbents make a mistake, be that by deploying a poor redesign or
failing to adapt to new trends. It's incredibly unlikely that Friends Reunited
can tempt people back, not least because the very name has a 'been there, done
that' feel to it.
If Friends Reunited is going to succeed
anywhere, it's in attracting the kind of users who feel daunted by Facebook's
complexity and don't understand why people want to engage online all the time.
There's a lack of pace to the content on Friends Reunited that suggests older
users might get more out of it, being free to roam its pages, find people with
familiar frames of reference and not have to plug in a status update every 45
seconds. Of course, they might equally decide that it's just another social
network that they’re not interested in.
Ultimately, one suspects that however
dramatic an overhaul Friends Reunited receives, its time has passed. The
internet is littered with the desiccated husks of failed, concept-driven social
networks, and there's little here to suggest that Friends Reunited won't join
them in the future. Undoubtedly, nostalgia can translate into popularity. You
only have to look at the legions of Keep Calm & Carry On parodies for proof
of that. But ultimately, Friends Reunited is nostalgic for something no one
else is: its own, long-departed success.