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March 22, 2023 31 mins

Let’s look back at the internet communities that were thriving before MySpace — even before Friendster. Why did MySpace get ahead when there was strong competition from other social networks at the time? 

To explore the earliest days of social media, Joanne is joined by investor and entrepreneur Benjamin Sun, who co-founded Asian Avenue in 1997, and Katie Notopoulos, senior technology reporter for BuzzFeedNews.



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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:10):
This is an iHeart original. I started working on an
Asian American social networking site with a couple of friends
out of my one metro apartment in Midtown Manhattan, and
we launched Asian Avenue in the summer of nineteen ninety seven,
and that was the beginning of the journey. Back then,
you had to buy your own servers, your own computers

(00:31):
to host the site. And so I had to raise
you three hundred thousand dollars from friends and family just
to buy servers to host the traffic. And every time
we buy server, I felt like it was going to
crash again because it was so much traffic. We realized, Wow,
I think what we're on to something is something that
really works. I'm Joanne McNeil, and this is main accounts

(00:53):
the story of MySpace. In this week's episode, we're going
to look at the Internet communities that were thriving before
my Space came along. Why was it that MySpace got
ahead when there was strong competition from other social networks
at the time. Episode two dialed up. Let me give

(01:18):
you the briefest of all possible brief histories of the
Internet before MySpace. Way back in the sixties, the government
threw money at a secretive project. It may or may
not have been created to preserve files in the event
of a nuclear attack, depends on who you ask, anyway.
In nineteen sixty nine, this top secret network, Arpanet, was

(01:40):
released to select defense department and university researchers around the country.
More and more people joined Arpanette over the course of
the decade, and a lot of them tickered with it
to make it better. They developed things like email at
forums and ways for people to chat with each other.

(02:01):
Arpanet was the Internet. Meanwhile, there was another breakthrough in
the seventies. Computers got personnel. Computers used to be giant
contraptions that filled an entire room, but with these new
Commodore pets trs eighties, Apple twos, you could carry a

(02:22):
computer home with you in a box. People started using
these PCs to get in touch with one another over networks,
dialing up and connecting over telephone wires. They were talking
to each other with BBS, bulletin board services and the
email and forums on what was still known as Arpanet
until nineteen eighty. Imagine a world where every wood ever written,

(02:46):
if a picture of a painting, and every film ever,
shot could be viewed instantly in your home by an
Information simple Highway, a high capacity digital communications network. Fast
forward to the nineties, and the Internet became known as
the Information super Highway. The excitement in the air a

(03:10):
lot of it had to do with the money e
commerce was going. Mainstream. Internet R and D that had
been government supported was being replaced with private companies, including
commercial online service providers like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online.

(03:32):
You've Got Mail It was the number one Internet provider
in nineteen ninety seven, even if you weren't using it.
AOL was inescapable discs to set up AOL were everywhere
flooding your mailbox, tucked in magazines, in cereal boxes, AOL
and other services were walled gardens. Someone on Prodigy wasn't

(03:55):
able to chat in AOL chat rooms. Likewise, someone with
an AOL account couldn't join in discussions on CompuServe message boards.
It would be like if you couldn't text your friends
because they have T Mobile and you're on AT and T.
While AOL was dominating the nineties Internet, the Worldwide Web,
a decentralized, non commercial service that anybody can access or use,

(04:20):
was also taking off. While AOL users or Prodigy users
were siloed from each other, everyone had access to the
Worldwide Web. Everyone on the Internet could view a website.
Websites were easy to set up and dynamic, with simple
code to display graphics and images. It was on the
web that you got social networks, online shopping search engines

(04:44):
like Google, because everyone could access websites regardless of whether
they logged in with AOL or another ISP. So the
first version of web really one DOTO was like static content,
the information super Highway, kind of phrase that you'd like
to use back then. That's Benjamin's son. He runs a
venture capital firm in New York these days. At the

(05:05):
start of his career, the Worldwide Web was brand new.
I joined Merrill Lynch became an analyst. When I was
going through training, a company called Netscape went public, and
I think I remember asking a co worker, like, what's
a web browser? Yeah, because even back in college we
didn't even use email back then, ben figured out what

(05:27):
a web browser was and instantly saw the potential and
I was like, oh, yeah, like community is going to
migrate to the web. And as someone that grew up
Asian American in New York City. You think real world
communities going online. Ben could see how online community is
on BBS or AOL might transition to the new context

(05:48):
of the Worldwide Web. And he understood that some of
the best online communities targeted audiences with a shared identity.
And when I think about communities, communities around racer ethnicity
are strong, some of the strongest affinity groups you can
think of. So I said, well, why don't I work
on a company that's going to actually take real world
communities and move them onto the web. There were companies

(06:10):
called like GeoCities or tripod, but those were like free
web pages, but no one was tying this idea of
like identity and community and really connecting people the way
we were doing. Ben could see what others maybe couldn't,
and he took a big risk. Working out of Ben's
one bedroom apartment, the team built out features they hoped
would attract users. Asian Avenue launched in nineteen ninety seven.

(06:38):
It was an overnight success. And I remember when we
went live, you know, the first member joined and I
actually like message her. I'm like, hey, how'd you hear
about us? She's like, I've been waiting for the site
to go up for months because we had a coming
stoon page. I don't even sure how she found it,
and it was a sixteen year old girl. Her family
was from Lao's originally immigrated from laos so Leaoshan, and

(06:58):
she lived in I think in Dallas, Texas. The reason
why she was so excited to join was that she
lived in a community where there actually weren't that many
other Asian Americans and especially and she was just so
eager to try to connect with people. And we just
saw this without any marketing, We just saw this real
kind of steady growth of people coming in looking for

(07:19):
that possibility to connect. About eighteen percent of households in
the US had internet access in nineteen ninety seven, and
that number was swiftly growing. Asian Avenue was a destination
for people who were just figuring out what the Worldwide
Web could do. So we had people fill out profile pages.
We allowed them to write a profile, what school they

(07:40):
went to, neighbors that they grew up, interest hobbies. They
can search for other people in the community. We had
a web based instant messenger. We had a way to
message each other directly. We had chat rooms, we had
message boards, and we had this functionality of adding someone
as a friend, which was very new. Adding friends and

(08:01):
messaging people might sound a lot like the social media
we use now. This was a big moment in Internet history.
It was new and exciting, and you have to remember
that technology in the nineties had limitations. Dial Up was slow,
and devices were expensive. A digital camera could cost hundreds

(08:23):
of dollars. This is why the Internet was still at
this point mostly text based. Asianav As, a small community
based effort, found a way to work around these challenges,
but a lot of people didn't have a digital camera.
We said, you can nil us your photos and we'll
scan it in for you, and literally we had people
like nailing photos of scan in first. To put that

(08:45):
in perspective today, in might tich Mark Suckerberg two point
nine billion minutes to manually scan all the profile photos
of Facebook users probably not humanly possible, And it was
happening at a time when people really didn't share much
of their lives on the Internet. Then it all started

(09:07):
really just snowballing, where you just saw people get more
comfortable over time just sharing more photos or writing more
content about themselves and then actually posting up photos of
people getting together and gathering, and then you hear people
being couples, and then eventually people getting married and eventu
people having kids, and you're like, wow, this is real.

(09:27):
It can actually have this dramatic impact on people's lives.
These people might have been complete strangers before they met
on Asian av and that's why they were there. They
were open to meeting new people and using the community
to be seen and found by others. Asian Avenue touched
a nerve. Users were signing up fast. The company raised

(09:47):
money from family and friends and bought servers to support
the sites growing traffic. And every time we buy server,
I felt like it was going to crash again because
there was so much traffic. We realized, Wow, I think
we're onto something that really works. In nineteen ninety nine,

(10:10):
AOL was still the largest ISP in the country and
it would be years before MySpace would launch. Meanwhile, investors
had taken notice of Asian Avenue. After raising one point
five million in private equity, the company was in a
great position to expand. Ben reached out to Omar Wazzo,

(10:31):
who had previously founded a service called New York Online. Together,
they came up with a new venture Black Planet. The
idea was to use the Asian Avenue model to create
a community destination for black Internet users. Despite their track records,
the social network wasn't an easy cell to investors. When

(10:54):
I started pitching, investors basically got laughed out of the room.
These investors in Silicon Valley said, black people and the Internet.
I couldn't go raise money because I couldn't get anyone
to believe me that there were going to be black
people on the end. But he showed the ambassadors wrong.
I think two thousand people put their emails in before
we launch, which we're not even sure why and how

(11:14):
they stumbled upon him. You know, we sent an email
out to the two thousand people say hey, the site's up,
and then like people started telling their friends, and the
next couple of days we couldn't believe how much traffic
was coming in. It was an instant hit, just like
Asian av and soon Black Planet was part of mainstream
pop culture and it was all like word of mouth,

(11:34):
and so, you know, Omer and I would get calls
from people and be like, hey, I heard your ads
on Hot ninety seven, you know, hip hop station here
in New York, and I'm like, we're not running ads
on Hot ninety seven and it's because all the DJ's
joined Black Planet and we're giving shout outs of Black
Planet members on the out. At one point, I remember
someone calling me up and they said, how much you
did pay Kanye to wrap about Black Planet? And I'm like,

(11:56):
I don't know. Kanye and Kanye's breakout out in college
drop Out. He has a song where he wraps about,
you know, picking up girls in college on Black Planet
with Tilip quality. The hell is this Melani at eleven
twenty six telling me that's thirty six twenty six plus
w Dunit goes a Black Planet b when they give
Bubble League. Most of the Internet at the time was

(12:20):
built for a default white user, made by white developers
funded by white investors. Black Planet and Asian Avenue showed
how diverse the Internet actually was. They were a hit
because they recognized the many Internet users of color and
made space for these communities. Within its first year, Black

(12:43):
Planet had more than a million users. Here is Omar
Wazzo explaining their success in an interview with c Span.
With our first site, Black Planet, we were part of
why it took off, like wildfire is. We were giving
people things like, you know, easy instant messaging, easy chat rooms,
easy ways to create profile pages of themselves, ways to

(13:04):
post on message boards, all things that are totally standard now.
But for a while that was something you paid twenty
dollars a month for on AOL and there was no
good version of it on the web. How many non
blacks used Black Planet? The site is about ninety percent
African Americans. So it's it's, you know, it's open to anybody,
but but it's really it's it's a you know, like

(13:25):
any community. It's really people come there because they enjoy
interacting with the other members. Black Planet and Asian Avenue
knew their audience. The founders were part of this audience.
Business was great, but what they couldn't control was the
broader market. In two thousand, the dot com bubble, as
it was known, began to pop. Eleven am Man back

(13:48):
in free fall. Online companies are collapsing on a daily
basis their lowest price in a year, down one hundred
and fifty five points, billions of dollars shots dot com
and e stamps, incinerating tens of thousands of jobs, and
the carnage is just beginning. Internet stocks plummeted. Hundreds of

(14:10):
Internet companies went out of business between two thousand and
two thousand and one. Investors became wary. Anything to do
with tech seemed like a risky bet Ben and his
companies had been selling ads, but it wasn't enough. They
needed a more solid revenue model. Ben looked around and

(14:30):
noticed which companies were making money. He landed on one
match dot com, which had launched just a few years earlier.
And we said, well, we create a separate dating area
in the site, let people create dating profiles, and we
charge a description. And so we launched in two thousand
and one, and it saved the business. Ben's companies survived

(14:51):
the dot com crash and led a new wave of
Internet businesses what became known as Web two point zero
user generated content and connections between people over the web,
like blogs and social networks. Soon enough, a new competitor
showed up on the scene. You may not know about

(15:12):
friends Friendster was founded in Silicon Valley by Jonathan Abrahams
in two thousand and two and opened to the public
in two thousand and three. I joined Friendster when like
nobody was on it. I was Friendster number two to
five or something. This is Katie and Atopolis. She's a
tech reporter at Buzzbeed News and was Friendster user number

(15:36):
two hundred and twenty five or something like that. She
wasn't super active on the side of first, there wasn't
much to do on it yet, but soon enough it
started to pick up. Sort if I remember like the
spring of two thousand and three, summer two thousand and three,
I feel like that's when a lot of my other
friends and it seemed like a lot of people started
using Friendster. So I loved Friendster. I thought it was

(15:56):
like so much fun, and because it was the first
sort of social network experience that I had participated in.
It is one of the fastest growing sites on the Internet,
with millions of register users so far. Why so popular
because it shows the world is not such a big
and unfriendly place after all. Friendster was a lot like
Asian Avenue and Black Planet, with profile pages and ways

(16:19):
to message people, But its defining feature was that Friendster
made your community of online friends visible, and this allowed
you to see the chain of connections between you and
any other Friendster user. Imagine it's summer of two thousand
and three and you're looking up people on Friends who
are fans of the movie Videodrome. You enter a movie

(16:42):
you like in the Friendster search box and see anyone
in the world with it listed on their profile page.
The search brings you to Janet's page. She's twenty six
years old and lives in Chicago. In the top right
hand corner, there's a graphic that shows your friend Matt
is friends with Angela, who's friends with Janet. So she's
really just someone you're only a few parties away from meeting.

(17:05):
I r L anyway, right, You want to reach out
to Janet, But age and location and favorite movies or
books alone don't show what a person is like, whether
you'd actually want to be friends with them or ask
them at at a date. For that, you could scan
a user's testimonials. So testimonials on friends were it's it's

(17:25):
such a funny phrase or word that Friendster encouraged you
to do. People would write these in like the third
person about the you know for a day day. You know,
Juan is just the greatest friend and a really special
and funny person. And I hope you all know how
wonderful she really is. And I think she's just awesome

(17:47):
and we had so much fun at the lake this summer.
You could compare testimonials to what someone might have written
in a high school yearbook. I remember like writing these
just really like heartfelt and like thoughtful things, but also
like you wanted to be really funny too, Like I
remember like a lot of pressure to be like funny.
I wanted to do something like hilarious and ironic, like

(18:10):
you know, I mean also like you know, I was
twenty two, so I was like kind of stupid. If
you were on Friendster looking at random people's pages and
messaging them, it was likely that you were there for dating.
This is why Friendster always felt like was meant to
be a dating site a little bit, and it kind
of seemed like it was asking your friends to sort
of give you endorsements or Yelp reviews and the way

(18:33):
that maybe LinkedIn does now or something. Ben's son also
got an invite to explore Friendster in its first year,
and I remember the first time someone sent me an
email and they said, hey, should check out this thing.
It's it's it's in beta, but here's a password again
in and I checked it out. I was like, all right,
it's coming and friends to launch, and there was like

(18:55):
this big wave of you know, friends stick users, and
we said, okay, competition is this is the beginning of
like real competition. Four months after its launch, Friendster had
a million users. It had taken black Planet a year
to reach that many users, and it was just the beginning.

(19:24):
Perhaps Friendster grew too fast. The website was not equipped
to receive the traffic that was pouring in day after day.
So people were really frustrated by the glitchy and buggy
experience on Friendster, and it was constantly like dropping out,
and so sort of slowly people kept being like, well,
there's this other sort of alternative to Friendster that it

(19:47):
functions much more smoothly, called my Space. You should sign up.
We should all go over to my Space because it doesn't,
you know, bug out in the same way that Friendster does.
It doesn't have all these glitches and stuff. Social networks
aren't fun when you're waiting around for pages to load.
And I really liked Friendster, Like I had already sort
of found all my friends on there, and I was

(20:10):
having fun, and like I like kind of didn't want
to have to like start over, even though like this
had probably been about eighteen months tops of being on
this one platform, but eventually it seemed like a critical
mass and my friends were all, you know, moving over
to my Space whenever there would be a friends start outage.
So that's why eventually I signed up. My Space officially

(20:33):
launched in August of two thousand and three. It was
started by Christa Wolf and Tom Anderson you remember them
from the previous episode, at a company called e Universe.
They took inspiration from sites like Friends Store at Asian Avenue.
When they built it, there were only one hundred thousand
MySpace users in October of two thousand and three, but

(20:56):
the following year, having picked up a sizeable number of
dissatisfied Friends Store users, the site exploded to five million users.
This week, MySpace became the most visited website in the
United States, overtaking Yahoo and Google. This is now officially
the MySpace era. MySpace had its biggest day ever with

(21:19):
four point three billion page views with a bat that
was in one day. Yeah, there was definitely like this
sort of awkward transition period where my friends seemed to
both be on both platforms and trying to figure out
which was the more useful one to be And I

(21:40):
think that period didn't last too long because it became
pretty obvious pretty quickly that my Space was a lot
more popular than Friendster, and Friendster was, you know, continuing
to glitch and die out. Like Friendster, MySpace encouraged a
lot of repetitive behavior. Let's say you have a crush
on someone. Now, obviously you're going to be checking their

(22:01):
page like five times a day to see if there's
any new comments or any you know, what are they
up to? You know, you really had a specific interest
in someone and you wanted to find out, like what's
going on in their life, like who are they talking to?
You had to be on their page looking at all
their stuff all the time. You know, it's big time suck,
a lot of work, a lot of work having to

(22:22):
crush On MySpace, you'd go to someone's page to see
if they were in a relationship or not, if they
were listing new bands under their favorite music or different
movies on their profiles, just like Friendster. But here is
where the two biggest social networks in the early outs
were not the same. On Friendster, users related to each

(22:43):
other as a chain of connections. Your friend Matt knows Angela,
who knows Janet? But on MySpace, it didn't really matter
if people were your friends or strangers or real or fake.
You added whomever you wanted. You showed other people on
MySpace who really mattered to you by selecting users for
your top eight. For young people, that is, there's a

(23:08):
lot of a lot of mental math and calculation into
who your favorite eight friends are going to be because
you know the perception of who you know. You want
to show the world those people are and stuff. And
you wouldn't even watch your other friends to see, Oh,
had they You know, Susie just took out Luke from

(23:32):
her top eight. I guess they must have broken up.
Top eight created competition. It encouraged users to curate their
friends and spotlight people or bands that reflected on their
personalities and personal taste. MySpace was loose. It was crazy
and energetic. From the glittery, squeezy design to the carefree

(23:54):
way people communicated on it, MySpace felt like a party
on the internet. It made friends to look like online
banking or some government run database. In comparison, people talk
more casually on MySpace. Even in testimonials. He would just
kind of like say like hey, what's up, or like, hey,

(24:15):
what are you doing Friday night? You know, you would
kind of use it as a like almost like a
DM method. By the way, all of this was written
in hot pink and white font over a black background.
My Space unlike Friendster, and allowed you to sort of
tweak the HTML on your profile page so that you could,

(24:35):
you know, change the color of the background or you know,
have a song plane when people looked at your page,
which you know, honestly it was right annoying, but people
were you know, put a lot of thought into what
song they were in picking stuff like it was really
fun spending a lot of time on your own profile.
You know, it's kind of like it's fun spending a

(24:57):
lot of time getting dressed, you know for a big
night out and doing your hair. You know, I think
that like people like that aspect of it. It's a
little bit narcissi. Ben's son also noticed that my Space
was tapping into the new possibility as a web two
point zero with its customizable pages. So people put all

(25:17):
these photos and scrolling texts and you know, text that
would blink, and like, I mean, everyone thought they were
like the best designer in the world. In reality, most
people were terrible designers. So yes, it's like you allow
allow people to have self expression, but in reality of
the like, the experience was like pretty jumped up. Traffic

(25:38):
on my Space was growing every day to the detriment
of Ben's companies. We definitely saw an impact on traffic
because we realized Asian Black latinos like, yes, they want
to be part of their own communities, but they also
want to interact broadly, more broadly with people out there.
And now we get let you connect with your white

(25:59):
friends and your Arabic friends and etc. Etc. Ben had
ideas about ways to create connections between the communities on
Black Planet and Asian av but these sites were designed
for a specific community first, rather than the whole world.
When people would sometimes critique us on like, oh, are
you promoting racial divides, you know, we would say look

(26:22):
absolutely not. Like we would tell you. I would tell you,
as an Asian American, having a good understanding of your
own identity and your own community first and foremost is
so important for you to be open to understanding other
people's identity and communities. And that's where we were doing
with an Asian Avenue. Was allowing people to actually better
understand their community in themselves. When my Space grew rapidly,

(26:45):
Asian Avenue began to lose that community. You really kind
of saw MySpace start kind of really leapfrogging us in traffic.
Users who had frequented both sites began to go to
MySpace for the kind of conversations they would have had
on Asian av or Black Planet. Investors were flocking to
MySpace over black Planet. It an Asian Avenue too, and

(27:09):
Ben's business began to slow down. I think, you know,
as it goes with tech and almost anything else, but
especially tech, you know, being first doesn't mean that you're
going to be the winner in my space even prove
that out. And in fact, in a lot of ways,
you're kind of trying to leap frog the other person
and using what you see currently and saying, well this

(27:30):
is pretty good, but how do I make it even
that much better? Even in a lot of ways, you know,
because you're early, sometimes I could be a hindrance in
terms of long term, in terms of you know, eventually
getting leap frog, because people take your ideas, get smarter
about it, and then sometimes you're kind of left in
a tough position being the existing player because you have

(27:52):
years of millions of lines of code and then you
have to like retool it, while someone says, I get
to start from scratch. So that's just a big advantage
sometimes that you get into technology. Ben's social network stuck
around for a while. He eventually just id to sell
for around thirty eight million, eleven years after he and
some friends had started it from his Manhattan apartment. Still,

(28:16):
Asian Avenue set the stage for the world we live
in today. Ben's work was visionary. I think we're especially
proud that behind the scenes, at the very dawn of
social networking sites was this little company out of New
York focused on, you know, minorities that really kind of
set the movement. And we're pretty broad in that. Asian

(28:39):
av had a focus and commitment to its users, but
it lost out. Friendster, on the other hands, had a
more secuitous journey after losing its American audience, The company
became a hit in Southeast Asia. In two thousand and eight,
it was the most visited website and both the Philippines
and Indonesia. Nonetheless, the company officially shuttered in twenty eighteen.

(29:05):
By two thousand, my Space was the biggest website in
the world, with over one hundred million users. Not only
was MySpace huge, the platform was making people on it famous,
these sort of you know, proto influencers, and people just
wanted to see pictures of them, which is like totally normal.
I mean one of the most exciting things about my

(29:27):
Space was that you could just see what other kids
looked like. You know, like I think we sort of
take for granted a little bit that that was not
really like possible to see what, you know, kids in
the next town or the next state looked like, you know,
in high school, that what are they wearing, what kind
of hairdos do they have? Like do they want to

(29:50):
be my boyfriend? You know, like that was really exciting
for teenagers and young people, and that didn't really exist
in a broadway before. More on this and the next
episode of Main Accounts The Story of MySpace. Thank you
to our guests Bens and Katie Ntopolis. Thanks for listening
to Main Accounts, The Story of MySpace and iHeart original

(30:13):
podcast Main Accounts. The Story of MySpace is written and
hosted by me Joanne McNeil, editing its sound design by
Mike Coscarelli and Mary Do. Original music by Alice McCoy,
Mixing and mastering by Josh Fisher, Research in fact checking
by Austin Thompson, Jocelyn Sears, and Marissa Brown. Show logo

(30:37):
by Lucy Kntinia. Special thanks to Ryan Murdoch Grace Views
at the Head Frasier. Our associate producer is Lauren Philip,
our senior producer is Mike Coscarelli, and our executive producer
is Jason English. If you're enjoying the show, leave us
a rating and a review on your favorite podcast platform Sadly,

(30:58):
my MySpace page is no longer around, but you can
find me on Twitter at Joe McK let us hear
your MySpace story, aunt's check on my book lurking main accounts.
The Story of MySpace is a production of iHeart Podcasts.
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