May 16, 2017
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Friendster Was The Best Social Media Site, Ever

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I’m serious.

Facebook is the most exhausting part of my morning. My feed is a minefield of fake news, hoaxes, and people who are throwing out opinions that are so trollish that they are basically begging their “friends” to tap out a quick rage-filled response. Social media… more like social warfare… amirite?

It’s enough to leave me nostalgic for simpler times, back when social media was about friendship and finding the perfect dark color scheme to tell the whole World Wide Web that you think My Chemical Romance and AFI are the best bands, like ever. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram… they are all trying to offer users a more-perfect version of social media. But we already reached perfection. Way back in the mid-aughts. No, I’m not talking about MySpace. I’m talking about Friendster.

First some quick background: Friendster, the first real social media site, hung on here in Indonesia a lot longer than it did in the West. The site was the first to gain popularity in the US, eclipsing earlier offerings like Makeoutclub, but it didn’t have staying power. Soon MySpace, and then when it too collapsed, Facebook, Twitter, and a million other companies, would demand our attention and social lives.

But Indonesia is something of an outlier when it comes to technology. We’re the people keeping Path alive (remember that thing?). In 2010, 20-somethings in the US were using their iPhones to check Facebook. In Indonesia, we were logging into Friendster and sending people messages on BlackBerry BBM.

If this was any other country, it wouldn’t amount to more than a weird quirk. But Indonesia has 255 million people—enough to keep a company afloat for years after it dies elsewhere. Add in some of our neighbors and you have an emergency “save the business” plan. That’s why if you want to visit Friendster’s offices today (yes, it still exists), you better book a flight to Kuala Lumpur, not Silicon Valley.

So why do I love Friendster so much? In terms of technological features, the site couldn’t do much. Facebook has video, photos, comments, direct messaging, and God knows what else. Friendster had weird fonts and blog posts that would be considered way too long today. There was nothing to like, nothing to share. Hell, there wasn’t even a Feed. But it was still perfect to me. Here’s why:

A personalized profile page

On Facebook, you can post nearly anything—photos, text, videos, gifs—as long as it doesn’t violate their terms and conditions. But one thing you can’t do: completely customize your profile page. I guess it doesn’t matter today. When was the last time you actually went directly to someone’s profile? But back in 2008, your profile page was an extension of your personality IRL. Do you want the world to know you’re a dark, deep emo kid? We’ve got the perfect color scheme (black) for you. You want to come across like a hopeless romantic? How about a profile as rosy as your glasses? Love anime? All otaku are welcome. Need a bigger profile pic? Bam. Make it the whole damn page.

Friendster puts ‘friends’ front and center

Today’s Facebook is basically the world’s largest publisher. My feed is so full of brands (I see you Oriflame) and ads and articles that it’s easy to forget the whole thing was supposed to be about making new friends and keeping in touch with old ones.

Friendster didn’t have time for any of that shit. Because it couldn’t. It wasn’t technologically capable of handling a bunch of ads, videos, and articles. But sometimes simplicity is perfection. Friendster only let you leave a “Testimony” on a friend’s wall. If you wanted to reply, you had to go to their wall and type a response. There was no @, no DM to mess with. If you wanted to take the conversation to the next level, you had to switch to SMS. It was an actual friendship. I think I spoke to every one of my Friendster friends on the reg. Can you say the same thing about Facebook?

There were no political debates or fake news

Are you sick of reading about religion, blasphemy, kafir, and Flat Earth Theories every time you log on Facebook? I sure am. People on Facebook, on my feed at least, seem more concerned with political debate and spreading propaganda than personal updates. But most of these posts and ideas can’t be traced to any real source. Fake news is a big enough problem that some experts have argued whether it can change the outcome of an election.

Friendster, on the other hand, read like a diary. It was an (often angsty or melodramatic) stream of consciousness that was meant for your closest friends. And that’s what made it so safe. When’s the last time you heard someone on the news saying that your list of the best Metallica albums or that long, tearful letter to your unrequited crush was destroying democracy? Exactly.

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