What Friendster (Yes, Friendster) Teaches Us About Social VR and Virtual Worlds

God, there are days when I miss Friendster. Anybody remember Friendster?

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Friendster was founded by Canadian computer programmer Jonathan Abrams in 2002, before the wider adoption of MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and other social networking sites. It was my first introduction to social media. Hell, it was most people’s introduction to social media. This was a brand new world! The hype about social networks then was similar to the hype over virtual reality now.

FriendsterJonathan Abrams originally meant for Friendster to be a dating site, but the people using it had other ideas. People began to game the system by connecting to each other to form ever-larger social networks. Friendster would give you statistics on the number of your connections, out to three degrees of separation (that is, friends of friends of friends). And people began to compete with each other to see who could amass the largest social network. We called ourselves “Friendster whores”.

Actually, danah boyd, then of the School of Information Management & Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, was (as far as I am aware) the first person to define the term “Friendster whore”. She was, at the time, researching Friendster and other online social networks, trying to understand how people present their digital identity, negotiate social contexts and articulate their relationships. (I actually did submit some stats of my huge, eventually-3-million-plus Friendster network to her.) Her definition, which I adopted, was taken from her blog Connected Selves, September 1, 2003: “Friendster whores — people who simply collect as many people as possible”

On top of that, people begin creating fake Friendster accounts called Fakesters (“Hi, I’m Jupiter, a huge swirling ball of gas!”). The Fakesters became a way for Friendster pranksters to connect with each other, and expand their merry mayhem even further.

Of course, the people running Friendster were not too terribly keen on people creating fake accounts, and they would delete them as fast as they could. (These agents were termed the “Friendstapo”.) That only made some people redouble their efforts to create fake accounts, and some of them were truly hilarious and inspired.

My favourite Fakester was someone who channeled the late-night-infomercial fake-Jamaican tarot-card-reading shaman Miss Cleo, who declared a run for President…

Dat’s right babies! Da will a’da spirits be dat
I should lead dis wonderful nation trew da comin
times! Due ta m’overwhelmin popularity and trust
wit’in da Friendster community, Miss Cleo be
runnin fer president! So call me now ta cast yer
vote!

Friendster turned into a very different beast from what Jonathan Abrams had intended. Now, who would have predicted that?

My main point is this: the people who create the software platforms think they have control, but it’s really the end users who shape the service and build the community that they want to see. Past a certain point, it’s completely out of the founders’ hands. Linden Lab understands this and, for the most part, they get out of the way of the insanely creative people who have built Second Life into what it is today. Nobody could have predicted all the fantastic directions that SL went into. And I can see the same thing happening already in Sansar, High Fidelity, and other virtual worlds.

Surprisingly, it’s the often-anarchic world of VRChat which is currently following the rigidly-controlled Friendster corporate playbook that’s doomed to failure. For example, from their Community Guidelines page, there’s this gem:

Petitions & Protests

All questions and concerns should be emailed to moderation@vrchat.com. Any effort to organize a petition or protest on official VRChat channels is forbidden. These include but are not limited to VRChat, the VRChat subreddit, and the VRChat Community Discord.

Hmmm…let’s see how long this little edict lasts, shall we?

I do remember reading somewhere that Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab and the creator of Second Life, was truly surprised when people took his platform and basically recreated the real world (big mansions, fancy cars, etc.), as opposed to creating things that were impossible to have in real space and time. Of course, that came about too, over time. But it turned out many people simply wanted to live out their fantasies of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I just came across this ad from the March 2018 issue of the SL magazine, Attention:

Opulent Lifestyle.png

Which goes to prove my point. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. People may take social VR spaces and virtual worlds into as-yet-undreamed-of and unanticipated areas. Nobody can predict what the metaverse is going to look like.

Except for Miss Cleo 😉

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