Friendly Competition

David Murphy

Murph Friends ReunitedSo farewell then Friends Reunited. 16 years after its launch, and after suffering a long, slow, painful demise, the social networking website that aimed to help people get back in touch with old school and college friends is to close its doors.

It’s a salutary lesson in the degree to which any social network is prey to the whims and foibles of its users. Even Facebook, which can seemingly do no wrong right now, would be wise to consider for a moment or two the fate that has befallen its much smaller competitor.

Things looked very different for Friends Reunited in 2005 when ITV splashed out £175m to acquire it from its founders, Steve and Julie Pankhurst, who had launched it from a spare room in their London home. Many people questioned the price ITV paid at the time, and their doubts appeared justified when ITV sold the business to Brightsolid, owned by Beano publisher DC Thomson, for just £25m in 2009. DC Thomson subsequently handed the site back to Steve Pankhurst two years ago to see if he could revitalise it, but he has now come to the conclusion that it’s a dead duck.

Second Life
News of Friends Reunited’s imminent closure got me thinking about the other social networking sites whose fortunes have waned as Facebook’s have waxed. Like Myspace, the music-focused social network that News Corp paid $580m for in 2005 before selling it for just £35m six years later. Or Second Life, for a brief period seen as a place no business could afford not to have a presence. Look at Second Life today, however, and you would struggle to understand what all the fuss was about, though perhaps the current fascination with virtual reality will give the site a new lease of life.

Or how about Bebo, founded in 2005 and sold to AOL for $850m three years later before being declared bankrupt and sold back to its original founders for just $1m in 2013. It has since re-emerged as a messaging app.

So should Facebook be worried? Well clearly, it can’t afford to rest on its laurels, even with 1.55bn monthly active users as of Q3 2015. Indeed, you do get a sense that it can’t go on dominating the world of social forever. Can it? For the moment however, Facebook shows no signs of loosening its stranglehold.

Two years ago, we covered a piece of research carried out by John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, two researchers from Princeton University. They argued that by 2017 – three years into the future at that point – Facebook would have lost 80 per cent of its then 1.23bn users, who would abandon Facebook because of the tribe mentality that leads us to drop things with the same enthusiasm with which we initially adopt them.

Three years is a long time in the digital world, of course, so back in 2014, that prediction, while unlikely, didn’t seem completely beyond the realms of possibility. Standing here in 2016, however, with Facebook having continued to grow its user base, the chances of it losing four fifths of those users by the end of next year look somewhat remote. to say the least. Ultimately though, if the demise of Friends Reunited and all the other failed social networks teaches us one thing, it should be never to say never.