A year later, Friendster.com is nearly 6 million users strong, valued at more than $50 million and referenced in the scripts of hot TV shows like Fox's "The OC." It's become, as Google before it, part of the pop culture lexicon, growing through word-of-mouth and the subsequent mainstream media coverage attracted to the buzz around it.
"It really was like that old shampoo commercial where you tell two friends and then they tell two friends and so on," says Jonathan Abrams, founder and CEO of Friendster, who pulled in 20 of his closest friends as the first users. "And it goes beyond viral marketing to something I call viral nagging. That's when your friends don't just tell you about something, but they bug you about it and keep bugging you."
Mr. Abrams, a 33-year-old former software engineer at Netscape, created Friendster in his Silicon Valley apartment, intending to build a better way to meet people online. The free site launched in test mode early last year and quickly attracted $13 million in venture support. Mr. Abrams' 20 friends invited their friends to join the site, and those in turn invited others.
Users have to be invited, and once they sign up, they're linked to their friends' network of people. The friend sphere keeps growing exponentially, reinforcing the old six-degrees-of-separation adage that we're all somehow connected through someone we know.
Dating Web sites like Match.com and eHarmony.com had already flourished, but the success of Friendster stirred up new interest in social networking sites. Some have seen their numbers spike, and new ones have been encouraged to launch.
Though he's not a marketer by trade, Mr. Abrams did have brand building as a goal from Day One and gave careful consideration to positioning. It all started with the name. Friendster was a conscious choice because he didn't want it to be perceived as a dating site. He dismissed any choices that contained words like "love" or "match" or "marry" so it could have a broader base for potential users.
Friendster has no media budget still, and has done no traditional advertising. There's one marketing executive on board the company now, but mainly to field opportunities like merchandising and potential entertainment ideas based on the Friendster community.
Pop culture watchers and business mavens say Friendster came along at just the right time and captured the zeitgeist.
"People are desperate for connection, but they're increasingly skeptical," says Jane Buckingham, founder and president of Youth Intelligence, a New York and Los Angeles trend watcher. "This site has a halo effect. If your friends have endorsed this person, then that must mean he's OK."
In a social climbing world, whom you know is very important. "Friendster lets you feel like you're part of something exclusive," she says. "It plays into our need to belong."