The news that the website Friend Reunited is due to close soon will pass by many of today’s Social Media users. The story of the website really is one of “what could have been” when compared with how Social Networking has evolved today. It was formed back in 2000 by husband and wife Steve and Emily Pankhurst, very keen to follow in the success of the US website Classmates.com which had launched five years earlier.
In the first year of operation they signed up around 3,000 users, but once the concept was understood by savvy internet users, news spread and it went viral with over 2.5 million sign ups by the end of 2001, just eighteen months after launch. It seemed everyone wanted to know what happened to old school friends, family members and even ex-partners. The tabloid press were quick to pick up on stories that featured Friends Reunited as either the hero or the villain in relationships, including the then current England goalkeeper.
Between 2002 and 2005 the Social Media landscape was pretty barren, with the main players being MySpace and Friendster. Friends Reunited took advantage of the rapid development of home computing and expanded internationally, reaching 15 million users by the end of 2005 which for many commentators was the tipping point for the world of social networking we know today.
In that year two most popular websites on either side of the Atlantic were sold with MySpace being acquired by News Corp for over $500 million whilst Friends Reunited sold to ITV for around $250 million. 2005 was also the year that Facebook started to expand within the US. Viacom offer to buy Mark Zuckerberg’s company for $75 million, which he declines.
ITV saw significant opportunities to create an online community as well as being able to generate revenue from the site, both in terms of subscription charges, in-use charges and advertising on the website itself. However, users had become accustomed to free access to the site, and with the likes of Facebook, Bebo and Linkedin growing in popularity, active user number began to drop. ITV sold the website to Brightsolid in 2009 for just £25 million, although they themselves estimated its value just two years later to be little over £5 million.
By this time, social networks had gone mobile. Facebook could boast hundreds of millions of users and revenues of over £4.5 billion, Twitter was tweeting over 65 million times a day and LinkedIn had listed on the stock market. New entrants such as Tumblr and Pinterest were developing social content aggregation apps for mobile devices, and WhatsApp and SnapChat had just started to gain popularity.
The internet user today doesn’t really understand the term “retro” so any redevelopment of the Friends Reunited concept would have to compete with the types of instant, always-on, subscription-free models that billions of users enjoy every day. Ironically, the interest in what our former classmates and partners are up to now still exists. However, the long digital shadows we all cast online today makes finding that information relatively easily and free.
For me I will briefly lament the passing of Friends Reunited, but it will also be with some regret that they missed an opportunity to be as big as Facebook (if not bigger) had they got their model right.