Would VoIP have saved Friendster? Hell, no

Some of us were consuming the ol' liquid barley the other night, talking about everything from Podcasting to politics.I then raised the subject of Friendster.

Some of us were consuming the ol' liquid barley the other night, talking about everything from Podcasting to politics.

I then raised the subject of Friendster. They were the social Web before MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, you name it.

But that was three years ago. And as the New York Times' Gary Rivlin brilliant piece emphasizes, Friendster is little more than a minor player as bolder thinkers overtook them. Now, according to ComScore MediaMetrix, their visitor accounts are at or near the bottom of pretty much every other social site with a pulse.

The story is sad: a babe-chasing (rather than code-writing) founder in over his head with less than a full breadth of vision for what the product should look like and enough of an ego to think he was hot spit enough to resist an early buyout offer from Google; venture capitalists that took over in exchange for their subsidies, but clashes and poor execution since.

Now how did we get to talking about VoIP here?

Hear Rivlin out for a couple of paragraphs: 

But the board also lost sight of the task at hand, according to Kent Lindstrom, an early investor in Friendster and one of its first employees. As Friendster became more popular, its overwhelmed Web site became slower. Things would become so bad that a Friendster Web page took as long as 40 seconds to download. Yet, from where Mr. Lindstrom sat, technical difficulties proved too pedestrian for a board of this pedigree. The performance problems would come up, but the board devoted most of its time to talking about potential competitors and new features, such as the possibility of adding Internet phone services, or so-called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, to the site.

THE stars would never sit back and say, ‘We really have to make this thing work,’ ” recalled Mr. Lindstrom, who is now president of Friendster. “They were talking about the next thing. Voice over Internet. Making Friendster work in different languages. Potential big advertising deals. Yet we didn’t solve the first basic problem: our site didn’t work.”

OK, what are the takeaways here? Usability trumps bells and whistles.

And if you have a board who calls all the shots but thinks usability is a pedestrian pursuit for developers and code jocks, then you have a company destined for obscurity.

And barring an unforseen development, that is probably what is going to happen to Friendster. You can do so much more on other sites than you can on Friendster.

As Rivlin writes, additional functionalities were envisioned, but were put aside pending performance upgrades that haven't really seem to have been implemented.

Yes, there are some videos, but only a handful and without seeming relevance to the site's central mission of facilitating communication among, well, friends. And it takes the video page quite a while to load. 

Before you add VoIP, Friendster, figure out what you are about.

You may not have all that much time to do so. 

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