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Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version
The Big Picture: An Overview of Friendster, Ryze and Meetup

Friendster, Ryze and Meetup are all types of social software that attempt to leverage online interactions into offline relationships. Each, however, adopts a different approach to the task. Each situates itself in a slightly different context. Each environment feels like a very different place to plant the seed of a new real-world relationship. So, before delving into the their respective functionalities, it's important to get a sense of the gestalt of each.
"Friendster is an online community that connects people through networks of friends for dating or making new friends." -- the Friendster "About" page[42]

Friendster is operated by a privately held corporation, Friendster, Inc. and was founded in 2002 by Jonathan Abrams. Currently, Friendster is still in its beta trial phase, although it is live on the Web and has seen participation grow at an explosive rate. As a form of social software designed to foster new friendships, romantic relationships and activity partnerships (as opposed to work relationships), Friendster feels like a friendly place to be. The design interface is visually appealing, casual and clean with a smiley face serving as the company logo. User profiles read like the Cliff's Notes of a dinner party conversation.

The look and feel of the site suits Friendster's people-centric, as opposed to event-centric, approach to facilitating real world interaction. Rather than providing tools to coordinate or organize real-world meetings, Friendster solely provides tools that enable people to meet and interact virtually. While site language explicitly and ubiquitously encourages face-to-face meetings, the onus is on the user to take the virtual acquaintance into the realm of the real.

Friendster operates on the "friend of a friend" principle: if I am your friend, then maybe I would want to be friends with your other friends, too. To make manifest the friend of a friend phenomenon you join Friendster, invite your real life friends into the system, have your friends invite their friends, and so on to build a "personal network" of friends of friends up to four degrees of separation. The software then enables you to search this personal network (and only this personal network), interact with other users in your personal network and hopefully forge enough of a connection with a member of your personal network that you decide to meet in person. Essentially, Friendster maps pre-existing real world relationships and makes these connections visible to the members of that network. By reflecting the social network back to the members of that network, Friendster hopes to foster real world friendships between people who might not otherwise have met, despite being connected by only a short chain of acquaintances.

At first, Friendster's functionality might sound trivial, as if the same goal could be accomplished by just throwing a really good house party, but it's important to remember that typically an individual only has access to a local perspective of the social networks they take part in. The number of people you're connected to feels small because you're only conscious of your immediate connections; networks, however, get big fast as you scale out. For example, I currently have 15 "friends" on Friendster, but at the moment these 15 friends have provided me with a searchable personal network of 27,067 people. That would be one big house party.

The question implicitly raised by Friendster's premise, however, is whether or not there is any social meaning to the knowledge that someone is only four degrees of separation away from you. How short does a chain of acquaintances have to be to really be considered short? Are a small hop count and "socially close" the same thing?
"Ryze helps people make connections and grow their networks. You can network to grow your business, build your career and life, find a job and make sales or just keep in touch with friends." -- Ryze "About" page[43]

Adrian Scott, of Napster fame, launched the beta version of Ryze in October 2001. Ryze was born when Scott realized he wanted a way for the people who interacted at the business networking events he regularly held to keep in touch outside of the event. The goal was to create a way to maintain and build business and personal networks across geography, as well as to make it easier to remember the respective backgrounds of the people who interacted at networking events. Much more professionally oriented than either Friendster or Meetup, Ryze's interface is heavily text-based and feels rather no-nonsense.

Ryze's approach to facilitating offline interaction is to provide a hybrid of both people-centric and event-centric tools and information. Not only does Ryze support functionality to enable users to interact with one another within the virtual environment, but it also provides a plethora of information about real-world events all over the country run and attended by Ryzers. Ryze events can be public, private, sponsored by Ryze, sponsored by other companies, professional in nature or interest based. Site-wide, Ryze users and Ryze real-world events are given equal attention. Ryze networking can happen online, offline, or as a combination of both.

To start benefiting from the Ryze network, a prospective user need only join, set up a profile, say who they know and what they do and start interacting with other Ryzers. Ryze users designated as "friends" may or may not be previous real-world acquaintances. Though Ryze users are repeatedly encouraged to invite people into the network, it's entirely possible that a user could become a thriving member of Ryze having had no prior real world interaction with any of its members. So, the Ryze network is not a reflection of a pre-existing real-world network of relationships, like Friendster's is intended to be, but rather a creation of a small world network from scratch, comprised of a mix of real world friends and strangers mingling online.

Ryze also operates on the "friend of a friend" principle, as "who you know" is the currency of the experience. However, because Ryze stresses business networking over the development of casual relationships the emphasis is placed not on homophily ("I'd like your friend because I like you, I like you because you're like me"), but on the information the weak ties in small world networks can provide. As Granovetter demonstrated, your direct friends may be more inclined to help you find a job than people you are only weakly connected to, but they're usually not in a position to do so. Weak ties tend to have access to different (and potentially useful) information than you do precisely because you are not socially close. So, Ryze allows users to generate a profusion of weak ties faster and more efficiently than anyone could ever do in the real world, and hopes to enable users to turn those virtual weak ties into real-world gains.

The question raised implicitly by Ryze's premise is whether generating an abundance of weak ties is as useful as it seems. Is there such a thing as too many weak ties? Are all weak ties created equal or are some stronger than others? Are virtual weak ties qualitatively different?
"Some say that the Internet eliminates the need for face-to-face connections. We say that millions of years of evolution have created a species that needs real world friends. Enter Meetup. We do something the Internet should do: locally connect people around topics of interest." -- Meetup "About" page[44]

Meetup was founded in 2002 by Scott Heiferman, Matt Meeker and Peter Kamali. Tired of that old "the Internet will mean the death of distance" chestnut, Heiferman et al. chose instead to focus on the Internet's potential to foster social connections in local communities. Meetup organizes simultaneous, interest-based get-togethers in cities all over the country (and 55 cities around the world as well). Meetup's design is clean and accessible and the logo is a dynamically generated rotation of nametags that say "Meetup" -- each handwritten and submitted by a Meetup user. Meetup's logo is an excellent metaphor for the feel of the entire site; evidence that Meetup users engage with the site and with each other is apparent everywhere. Despite the fact that Meetup does not support robust online user interaction, it's evident that interaction is taking place, people are meeting one another, and relationships are being forged. If you want to take part, though, you have to go to a meetup. You don't have to go home, but you can't interact here.

As you might have guessed, Meetup's approach to facilitating real world interaction is entirely event-centric. Hence the lack of elaborate user profiles or online interaction functionality. Rather than providing the tools to cultivate a robust online community characterized by interaction, discussion and "getting to know you" type activity, Meetup attempts to push all of that interplay offline as quickly as possible. When a user joins, it's because they're expressing interest in attending a meetup; there's no other reason to register with the system. The most lightweight of the three applications, Meetup is a bare-bones broker of real world interaction. Users have a big say in how meetups happen, they can submit topics they'd like to have a meetup about, as well as cities and venues in which they would like them to occur, but on-site, user-to-user interaction is kept to a bare minimum.

Clearly, Meetup is not a "friend of a friend" network the way Friendster and Ryze are. What matters on Meetup is not who you know (and who you don't), but what you like and what you do. Meetup does not map social relationships between users; it simply provides the who, what, when and where of each meetup. If you're interested in a particular topic, Meetup enables you to find people in your local community that are also interested in that topic. The rest is up to you once you get there.

The question raised implicitly by Meetup's premise is whether or not affinity is a strong enough motivator all by itself to bring complete strangers together. Is being of like mind enough to turn an anemic virtual interaction into a robust offline interaction?

Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup >>>

[42] "Friendster beta," ( (2 April 2003).

[43] "About Ryze," ( (2 April 2003).

[44] "Meetup Frequent Questions," ( (2 April 2003).

Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version

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Contact: Alicia L. Cervini
Interactive Telecommunications Program, 2003