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The social network that could have been Facebook

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Name the company: It was founded in spring 2004, and was one of the first online social networks. It started with a hardcore membership of only a few hundred, but that later ballooned to include members in every corner of the world. It was one of the first websites which let you keep check on your friends, chat with them, send messages and, most importantly, check out their profile pictures and spy on who they were becoming friends with.

The answer I’m looking for, as you can probably guess from the title, is not Facebook. Another social network was set up within a month of Mark Zukerberg’s giant. It had almost all of the same traits as Facebook – in some ways it was actually more sophisticated. But today, while Facebook has half a billion members, this social network has not many more than half a million. While Zuckerberg is sitting on a paper fortune of getting on for $7bn, this network has faced financial difficulties, had to lay off 40pc of its staff last year and only made it into profit five years after its foundation.

The site I’m talking about is ASMALLWORLD, and I was reminded of its story when I watched The Social Network the other week. Back in 2004 it was hardly written in stone that the two networks’ paths would diverge so dramatically. ASW was, in many senses, a more polished and attractive site than Facebook. And unlike Facebook, which was initially limited to those at Harvard, and then a few other universities in the US and UK, ASW was open to students and non-students alike, provided they were invited by an existing member.

But in the months that followed their respective launches, the sites followed dramatically different paths. ASW remained invite-only. In fact, it used this as part of its appeal. It was defined by its exclusivity, so members were (and as far as I know still are) only given a limited number of invites, and jealously guarded membership. Facebook, as anyone who has watched the film will know, spread rapidly from campus to campus, encouraging as many students to join as possible, before opening up membership to anyone within reach of the internet. In other words, Facebook chose openness. ASW chose exclusivity.

I remember back in 2006 when someone encouraged me to join Facebook, I thought: “isn’t that just like another version of ASW?” Well, yes it was, but the key difference, the openness, was everything.

What both ASW and Facebook did that their precursors Myspace and Friendster did less well was to provide an infrastructure for you to get hold of your real-life friends (as opposed to the ones you might make online) and keep tabs on them. What turned out to be all-important is that because ASW limited membership, you couldn’t be sure all of your friends would actually be on there, which made it of limited use as an actual network, unless you were prepared to accept the artificial limits imposed by its creators. Today, many of us may not use Facebook particularly regularly, but at the very least it fulfils a similar function to a mobile phone and contacts book. I can’t remember the last time I used ASW.

Now, admittedly it was never ASW’s plan to create a universal social network. It was always envisaged as an exclusive enclave for the well-off and well-connected (I like to think of it (in crude American parlance) as “Douchebook” – you might get an idea of what I’m talking about when I tell you that the latest running story on its online “magazine” is a list of the site’s “most eligible batchelors” (yes, it’s a bit like Tatler, with all that that entails)). But it must nonetheless be galling for the founder Erik Wachtmeister (who, ironically, was a graduate of business school INSEAD) to be reminded, again and again, about how close he got to being one of the world’s richest men.

This is, in a sense, another episode in the recurring lesson of openness and standards in business – like VHS vs Betamax or Microsoft vs Apple (though that latter example has flipped since the iPod and iPhone). When your product’s success depends on its broad-scale adoption, trying to impose structure or regulation on it is the simplest way of consigning it to failure or stagnation.

There was nothing revolutionary per se about Facebook. It was not the first or best social network. But it spread the fastest, and with a social network that is pretty much the aim of the game. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus and NYU professor. says it is difficult to see a niche in terms of social networking that Facebook might not be able to compete in – in much the same way that Google dominates search. You can see his point. Foursquare may have been first to the location-based social networking, but Facebook is now muscling in on this territory with its Places feature (though so far with limited success). I’ve been spending some time out here thinking about the future of news, and have no doubt that, if it wanted to, Facebook could gatecrash this industry pretty effectively (though whether it would want to is another matter).

Facebook’s success derives not from its originality but its ubiquity, and the fact that it is part of the world’s social plumbing system. It is not a “wow” product, like the iPhone or, indeed, the PC and Microsoft DOS and Windows were in their earliest days. I suspect this explains why Mark Zuckerberg tends to be viewed not with the respect and adulation that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates receive but with a kind of dull thudding resentment (as evinced by the film). Or perhaps we’re all just jealous of the 26 year old. I suppose I must be: Zuckerberg is four years younger than me. He dropped out of Harvard and became a billionaire; I dropped out of full-time work and went to Harvard. But then it must be even more galling for Wachtmeister, who came so close to being a multibillionaire, but let his sense of social exclusivity get the better of him.

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