Ye Olde Social Network

Friendster is at once a thriving success and a robot-ruled ghost planet.

Charlena, Yetta, Wan, Aracely, LaNtRah, and Larue all say, “Hey.” So does Joe—a woman, judging by the photograph showing her in a teal bikini and cowboy hat. Hey is the subject heading that each of these lovely ladies chose for the messages they sent me via Friendster, a social-networking site that I haven’t visited with any regularity since 2006. While the subject headings were the same, the messages themselves were different. Aracely, Larue, and Yetta invited me to a second online location to—yikes—check out their nude photos. Charlena, Joe, and Wan had found dating sites they thought would be perfect for me. LaNtRah, for her part, was alerting me to a work-from-home opportunity in which, “for just 5USDOLLAR,” I could “get back more than hundreds for just 1months.”

If it sounds like I’m bragging about all my hot online dalliances, I’m not. It’s easy enough to tell that my weirdly forward, grammar-challenged e-harem does not contain any real people. Skylar and Patricia have the same photo atop their profiles, and said photo is actually of model/actress Jaime King. * Furthermore, the information in both Melody’s and Taylor’s profiles is about someone who goes by Angelina and whose gallery of friends includes a girl who lists her name as “Extreme Ass.” The occupations listed on the profiles—Skylar is a “sexton,” Cheyanne a “turner”—also seem kind of suspicious. And humans—whether they’re named Patricia or Extreme Ass, whether they work as sextons or turners—don’t ordinarily end messages, as Aracely did, by typing “Im not a robot LOL.”

The real giveaway that all these messages were fake was that they arrived via Friendster in the first place. As MySpace users know well, Friendster is hardly the only social network beset with spam-bots. It’s just that on Friendster, the robots often seem to be the only ones talking.

Friendster’s heyday came just a few years ago. The social-networking site was founded in 2002 by a former Netscape engineer named Jonathan Abrams, and it quickly attracted millions of users. The concept of social networking had existed long before, but Friendster arrived at the right time and was, for a while, a lively scene. It didn’t do anything Facebook doesn’t currently do better—namely, provide a classy-looking venue through which users could stay in touch with friends, ogle other people’s friends, and kill time making lists of random stuff. But the fact that it did those things at all was exciting and new back then.

Google offered $30 million for Friendster in 2003; venture capitalists assured Abrams that the company could soon be worth far more, and he demurred. Friendster might well have delivered on that promise, but the site quickly buckled under the weight of its new users and the squabbling Silicon Valley heavyweights on its board. Overwhelmed servers made the site painfully slow to load, potential innovations never quite got implemented, and Friendster was in eclipse by 2004. In an irony Charlena and Yetta would no doubt appreciate, this slide coincided with the emergence of an autocratic streak that found its fullest expression in Friendster’s quest to find and destroy “fakesters,” which management defined as anyone whose profile featured, say, a jokey name or a picture of the profile holder’s cat. Everyone moved to the less-uptight MySpace, then the ubiquitous Facebook. By 2006, the company was being eulogized in the New York Times. Spammy, forgotten, robot-ruled, and dusty, Friendster was thought of, if it was thought of at all, in the past tense.

Former users returning after a long absence will find friends’ profiles resting in a circa-2006 state. My old roommate, who has earned a master’s degree, worked at a newspaper in Minneapolis, gotten married, and moved to the South Pacific with his wife since he ceased to be my roommate, is still sleeping right next-door, per Friendster. Other friends have deactivated their profiles and disappeared from the site entirely. The Americans joining Friendster now don’t seem like a cross-section of any particular demographic—a recent perusal found a 63-year-old dad-type, alongside a mustachioed 41-year-old Canadian (“Interested In: Relationship with Women”), whose profile in turn abuts that of a woman whose foxy picture and flirty, sparsely filled-in profile strongly suggest that she’s a Charlena. Another Friendster newbie has the plaintive quote “Where Is Everybody?!?” atop her profile.

American Friendster users are out there, but the only ones still avidly using Friendster seem—from my hours of admittedly unscientific browsing—to be Asian-Americans in California or gay men, for whom the site has become a popular dating network. Venture outside those groups, and clicking around Friendster feels like roaming an abandoned space station.

But as seen in those weird transmissions to my inbox, Friendster does still exist. Despite the fact that Friendster trails Facebook, MySpace, and numerous other social-networking sites in the American market, the company continues to raise venture capital at an impressive clip, including a $20 million infusion last summer. Why are people still dumping cash into what looks like a social-networking graveyard? Because real human beings—plenty of them, actually—still log on to Friendster. It’s just that now they’re all logging on from Asia.

According to comScore, Friendster had roughly 30 million unique visitors in December 2008. More than 28 million of those visitors came from Asia. Friendster’s internal tracking suggests that the comScore tally—which doesn’t include visits from Internet cafes—actually understates the site’s traffic. If so, that would make Friendster roughly as popular in Asia as Facebook and MySpace combined. And Friendster’s users spend more time on the site, on average, than users of any other social-networking site.

Friendster has embraced its new identity as one of Asia’s preferred online hangouts. The company is currently ramping up its operations in Singapore and the Philippines, a country where 90 percent of the Internet-enabled population has a Friendster page. David Jones, the company’s vice president of marketing, posits that the site’s strength in the Bay Area’s Asian-American community during the good old days led to its rise across the Pacific. Social-networking blogger Danah Boyd advances the two-pronged theory that Asian users were more accustomed to and tolerant of a slow Internet experience and that Abrams—who became a despised figure during the fakester fiasco—”did not seem like as big of a dick” in Asia. Whatever the cause, Friendster’s Asian dominance probably became self-fulfilling at some point: If you’re in the Philippines and doing your social networking on Facebook, you’re probably awfully lonesome.

For an American ex-user, though, Friendster is the lonesome place. I like to imagine the site as a series of concentric constellations. The innermost space enfolds Friendster’s quiet multitudes: a galaxy of ex-users whose junked profiles still float around the network, several sad years out of date. The next, larger ring contains the site’s noisy, surging millions: the newly plugged-in users in Asia who, writing in Tagalog or Indonesian or Malay (or, most often, English), are obeying the apparently universal human impulse to create colorful, flirty online profiles for themselves. Further out, in the coldest and most distantly notional regions of the Internet, is my e-harem of robotic spam-slatterns. More than 100,000 users still join Friendster daily, which Jones, the Friendster VP, claims makes it harder to detect and delete the Charlenas. As long as real people keep coming, the robots will, too. Friendster wouldn’t be the weirdly vital relic that it is—wouldn’t be, period—without them both.

Correction, March 5, 2009: This piece originally misspelled the first name of model/actress Jaime King. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)