Friends Reunited: A Eulogy

PushON | January 20th 2016

Last week PushON had the pleasure of hosting Louis, a 15-year-old, on work experience in digital marketing. His focus was on social media and he performed an excellent end-of-stint presentation to the marketing department on the subject. Many of us were quite amused by his lack of knowledge of services such as LinkedIn, which he’ll no doubt become more aware of as he enters the job market. Louis in turn was amused by the working-age generation’s minimal experience of media such as Snapchat; and his revelation that YouTube was much more “social” than just “media” for his peers was a valuable insight.

I wonder what Louis would make of Friends Reunited? The news broke yesterday that the site had finally given up the ghost and was closing down. It had changed hands several times (including a sale to ITV for £120m in 2005) and was back with its founders, albeit valued at a tiny fraction of its 2005 price. It had essentially become a messaging platform for its dwindling number of users, and the potential for revenue from the site made it unviable in the modern marketplace.

It wasn’t always like this, though. The site launched in 2000 (just before Louis was born), at a time when internet connectivity had broken through to domestic use from its business and academic origins, and companies were looking into the potential for ecommerce and social connections. And it really was a big deal at the time – everyone was talking about it.

The premise was simple. You set up an account detailing where and when you went to school (other institutions were included) and the database would match you with potential classmates. It proved to be hugely successful, particularly among people who had left school decades earlier. When it started there was an annual subscription fee of about £7 (but this was eventually dropped in favour of an advertising model). At its peak it boasted 19 million subscribers.

Interest in the site was feverish. I joined out of curiosity and saw a few of my old friends’ profiles but never bothered to make contact. I didn’t really know what I’d say, to be honest. I’m sure we’d all moved on and got new circles of friends, and after sharing the odd anecdote about Mr Wilmore the science teacher, I’m sure conversations would have tailed off.

Romance proved to be a big draw (again, not a concern for someone as unlikeable as me), and the tabloids loved a good story about behind-the-bikeshed fumbles being rekindled, especially if wedding bells ensued. Being tabloids, they also loved a good story about married grown-ups seeking out their school boyfriends and girlfriends to indulge in illicit affairs – and the inevitable bust-ups and punch-ups. It all fed back into more popularity for the site.

Black eyes aside, Friends Reunited was a force for good, and the site coincided with a craze for school reunions, which it helped make all the more easy to organise. It also coincided with an interest in family tree tracing, and led to a sister site, Genes Reunited.

A friendly warning

Asking why FR eventually failed probably doesn’t help much, as it assumes longevity is built into online enterprises when experience tells us that the opposite is true. It might look like the big social media of today have reached critical mass and will never fade, but that only holds true until someone comes up with a better idea.

friends_reunited_logoI always felt the site looked old, tired and amateurish, and was never going to ignite new users’ imaginations. Right up until 2008 it was still using the same weird logo it had always used, looking like it had been designed on a primitive graphics package. Here’s what the site looked like.

friendsReunitedRevampEven when they revamped the site, they went with a logo that looked more like a recruitment agency’s, rather than summing up the warmth of friendship found. Sure, probably not a deciding factor, but every factor matters. They started advertising themselves as a kind of social media that would be recognised today, explicitly advertising that was there to keep in touch, not just to find people.

Ultimately, the generation that had grown up online was never going to subscribe to the site as they had plenty of other means of keeping in touch. And the older generation who had kickstarted the phenomenon probably exhausted their friends lists (I had a about 10 close-ish friends throughout my school life, and I assume I’m pretty average), and no doubt turned to Facebook and other media when they became available.

As Britons’ first mainstream exposure to social media, however, Friends Reunited deserves a lot of credit. It put the blazer in trailblazer, and laid the foundations for what would become an addiction to mass social media in the shape of Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, LinkedIn. It proved that the internet’s ubiquity was perfect for bringing people together in a shared pool of personal experience, and that when turned into data, those experiences could be utilised … and monetised.

I’m not here to diss Friends Reunited. It took an idea and ran with it, and while it was a success it made waves and enriched its owners.

Anyone who uses social media should all raise a glass of Thunderbird to our departed Friend.