Friends Reunited ...Reunited?

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The UK's first popular social network has given itself a makeover. Is it enough to bring people back?

Friends Reunited was one of the first social networking sites to achieve mainstream prominence in the UK, using people's tendency for nostalgia (and nosiness!) to tempt millions into signing up. The results were nothing short of a social phenomenon. Over its storied history, Friends Reunited created marriages, ended marriages, brought about countless new births and was connected to at least one murder. Not bad going, considering it was set up by a husband and wife team from Hertfordshire.

Launching in July 2000, Friends Reunited grew quickly, attracting 2.5 million users within a year, and as many as 15 million at its peak. However, its pay-to-contact model meant that when the novelty wore off, it was quickly supplanted by sites like MySpace (and later Facebook), which allowed users unrestricted access to one another at no cost. By the time ITV bought Friends Reunited for $280 million in 2005, it was already looking a little creaky, and when the media giant failed to reverse the site's fortunes, it was unceremoniously sold to Brightsolid in 2009 for the far more modest sum of $38.08 million.

Description: Friends Reunited

That brings us to the latest chapter of the site's history: Brightsolid has just announced a relaunch of Friends Reunited, intended to move the site away from its school-based roots and towards a new nostalgia-based service. A fitting move, perhaps, for a site that no one remembers visiting since 2002.

The site's new model encourages people to use their profile to collect and pin 'memories'. These take the form of pages dedicated to individual concepts - for example, a style of clothing, or a particular cartoon series, or (appropriating the site's former basis) the school you went to. These memories are then stored in a personal memory box called a Keepsafe, which other users can browse, comment on, and join. The idea is to expand beyond the site's former domain of schools, colleges and streets to cover all shared experiences.

Description: Friends Reunited

Organised online nostalgia is nothing new, of course. In the earliest days of the internet, a vibrant emulation scene allowed videogame fans to collect, trade and play childhood favourites on their PCs. Sci-fi fans were collecting and trading hard-to-find episodes of shows like Doctor Who on the internet long before anyone was releasing them commercially. Even sites like YouTube rapidly filled up with the intros and theme songs to old television shows. There's a huge appetite for the past, especially when it's available on the easily accessible archive that is the internet, so doesn't it make sense for someone to monetise that?

Well, maybe. The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes there's no other outlet for our reminiscences. Nostalgia might be all that Friends Reunited has left, now that Facebook has the monopoly on reconnecting old friends, but people sharing memories of the past isn't the reason people meet; it's something that emerges naturally when you put people with a shared past together. There's plenty of nostalgia on the likes of Facebook and Twitter; it's just mixed in with the rest of the user interactions.

Brightsolid believes that its professionally archived content, which includes lists of towns, places of interest, clothing trends and historical events, can combine with user-generated material to offer something new to its users. Citing Pinterest's recent popularity explosion, Friends Reunited believes that users want to 'curate' material with which they have a genuine connection, and that its site offers that.

Description: Friends Reunited

Brightsolid is a subsidiary of DC Thomson, publisher of The Beano and Jackie. Don’t let that sway you!

However, at this early stage, even a cursory glance of the memory listings reveals problems. The professional content is easily spotted, not purely for its professionalism, but because it's the most anodyne and uninspiring. A vein of insincere enthusiasm runs through its language ("Lycra: Were you one of the culprits?") and the pitifully low numbers displayed next to virtually every memory make the site feel devoid of activity - the kiss of death for any social network.

However, those crimes pale in comparison to the user-generated memories, which are poorly organised and plagued by users who don't seem to understand the system - hardly their fault, of course, given the unfamiliar model and lack of explanation offered by the site. As a result, every category is littered with bad content. The 'Childhood Memories' section contains multiple memories titled simply 'school', all with only one person (or fewer) attached. Images are often entirely absent, though on the occasion that the attached image was unmistakably a priapic male member, a blank placeholder would undoubtedly have been preferable. It's barely off the blocks and already in dire need of tighter editing, so who knows what it'd look like if users actually did return in droves?

Friend Reunited's claims of originality also rings false. There's a whiff of familiarity to the memories system, and that's because it closely resembles Facebook's now-deprecated groups feature. Users are invited to collect memories such as 'Commodore 64 better than Spectrum!' and 'The Twix Tea-Sucking Incident'. Zuckerberg's empire may have wearied itself on supervising such idiosyncratic discussions and removed them entirely, but it's debatable whether the appetite for them is enough to tempt users back to a brand as tainted as Friends Reunited.

The site has made two smart decisions, though. The first is to remove all charges, offering a service that's free to the user, although ad-supported. The second is to integrate with other organisations, including other social networks. Previously an island unto itself (the concept of social sharing was invented long after Friends Reunited formed) the site now allows you to embed your Keepsafe in other social networks, and even log in using your Facebook account. Ironically, despite its new nostalgia focus, Friends Reunited is apparently content to let some bygones be bygones.

Of course, whether the site works or not is never going to matter if the users don't return in significant numbers. Charting the fortunes of social networks is a difficult business at best, and the success of a new one often relies on them being properly positioned when the current incumbents make a mistake, be that by deploying a poor redesign or failing to adapt to new trends. It's incredibly unlikely that Friends Reunited can tempt people back, not least because the very name has a 'been there, done that' feel to it.

Description: Friends Reunited Dating

If Friends Reunited is going to succeed anywhere, it's in attracting the kind of users who feel daunted by Facebook's complexity and don't understand why people want to engage online all the time. There's a lack of pace to the content on Friends Reunited that suggests older users might get more out of it, being free to roam its pages, find people with familiar frames of reference and not have to plug in a status update every 45 seconds. Of course, they might equally decide that it's just another social network that they’re not interested in.

Ultimately, one suspects that however dramatic an overhaul Friends Reunited receives, its time has passed. The internet is littered with the desiccated husks of failed, concept-driven social networks, and there's little here to suggest that Friends Reunited won't join them in the future. Undoubtedly, nostalgia can translate into popularity. You only have to look at the legions of Keep Calm & Carry On parodies for proof of that. But ultimately, Friends Reunited is nostalgic for something no one else is: its own, long-departed success.

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