September 23, 2021

Friendster to Erase Early Posts and Old Photos

Friendster, which started in 2003, has long been eclipsed by younger, more nimble rivals, turning into something of a ghost town. But on Tuesday, its current owners told users of plans to change its business strategy — and to wipe out the site’s trove of digital memories, including ancient dorm-room photos, late-night blog entries and heartfelt friend endorsements, known as “testimonials.”

That set off a wave of nostalgia among Friendster members, even though most had stopped visiting the site long ago.

Jim Leija, 31, who works at a nonprofit music organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., recalled courting his partner, Aric Knuth, through the site.

“All of our early exchanges were with each other through their messaging systems,” he said. “We were writing early love notes back in the winter of 2003.”

Mr. Leija said that even though he had not used the service in three or four years, the news of its plans to erase older material tugged at his heartstrings. “Your emotions get wrapped up in it,” he said. “It reflected a particular moment in time in our lives.”

The mass deletion of so much evidence of embarrassing wardrobe choices and unrequited crushes might come as a relief to some, especially in an era when it seems that everything uploaded to Facebook can haunt people forever. But some say Friendster has unexpectedly turned into a time capsule with snapshots of who they once were. It is a version of their history that is not in a scrapbook or dusty shoebox but is live on the Web — for now.

“We want to forget our misdeeds and bad choices, but we also kind of want to remember them,” said Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “These old networks are our memories.”

Joanne McNeil, who studies and writes about Internet culture, said that as more of life is lived on the Web, people become more emotionally invested in the presence of particular online services, even those they have abandoned.

Ms. McNeil added that the realization that years of history could be deleted on a corporate whim was jarring.

“The impermanence of the Web used to be a way of life,” she said. “A site could be gone in weeks, months. But Google and Gmail came along and changed that, and now we always expect to have a copy of our lives online.”

Friendster’s plans to strip the service of older material reminded some of Yahoo’s move in April 2009 to pull the plug on GeoCities, an early provider of free Web home pages. At the time, Internet tinkerers and historians worked to keep the site’s millions of pages from disappearing forever. Jason Scott is the founder of a group called the Archive Team that tries to save such online content. He recently rallied efforts to preserve clips from Google Video, which Google is shutting down in favor of the more popular YouTube.

Mr. Scott said that the shuttering of social Web services and online communities was a “critical cultural issue.”

“This is the everyday neural activity of a world, of a society, scooped up and saved,” he said. “To me, that’s completely valuable and worthwhile to make sure it is saved for the future.”

Mr. Scott said his group planned to try to download as much of Friendster’s public data as possible before it is erased at the end of May, and to make it available online in some form.

Friendster’s current owner, MOL Global of Malaysia, said the site’s basic profile information and lists of friends would remain intact as it becomes more of an entertainment site. It is offering ways for members to download threatened photos and other material.

Friendster was once considered a hot property. The site’s financial backers included Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, and K. Ram Shriram, one of the first investors in Google. In fact, Google offered to buy Friendster for $30 million in 2003, but the site’s founder, Jonathan Abrams, chose to keep it independent. When MOL Global bought it in late 2009 for an undisclosed sum, it said the site had more than 115 million members, though it was not clear how many of those were active.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Mr. Abrams said he had not yet heard of the planned changes to the site. And he said he was surprised that anyone would care.

“It’s so old news to me,” said Mr. Abrams, who is involved in projects including a work space for start-ups and a social media venture. “After it was bought by the Malaysian company, that was the final chapter.”

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Ruling Spurs Effort to Form Digital Public Library

Some scholars and librarians across the country fear it may be, now that a federal judge in New York has derailed Google’s bold plan to build the world’s largest digital library and bookstore. With 15 million books scanned, Google had gotten closer to the elusive goal than anyone else.

“It is quite disappointing because there isn’t something better in the wings,” said Michael A. Keller, the university librarian at Stanford, one of the first major universities to allow Google to scan its collections.

But others, who were troubled by Google’s plan, have hailed the ruling. They see it as an opportunity to bring new urgency to a project to create a universal public library — one that, they say, would be far superior to Google’s because it would not be commercial. The project’s ambitious mission, recently described in a four-page memorandum, is to “make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.”

“People feel energized,” said Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, who recently praised the project in an opinion article in The New York Times. “This is an opportunity for those of us who care about creating a noncommercial public digital library to get on with it.”

The lofty effort, the Digital Public Library of America, counts a long list of heavyweights among its supporters, including librarians from major universities and officials from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Some of the nation’s largest philanthropic foundations have said they were interested in financing the project, though its total cost has not been determined.

The various backers of the library, and a number of interested parties, met in October at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which is coordinating the project. Representatives from technology companies like Google and Apple attended.

But the endeavor remains in its infancy. The group has many champions — Mr. Darnton is the best-known and most vocal — but it has no formal structure other than a steering committee. It has formed six working groups to study the project’s scope, financing, governance, legal hurdles, technical issues and audience.

“Everyone who is at the table has a different idea of audience, scope, content and governance,” said David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, who backs the project and attended the October meeting. “All those issues need to be worked through.”

Mr. Keller, a member of the committee, said the project “is coming late to the party.”

“It is still trying to figure out what it is and who it is,” he said. “There is no practical plan for getting it started.”

The project is playing catch up not only to Google, but also to Europe, where several countries have proceeded with large digitization projects. The European Commission has backed Europeana, a Web site where users can search for digital copies of 15 million works of art, books, music and video held by the cultural institutions of member countries.

Europeana is serving as something of a model for the noncommercial project in the United States. American institutions like the Library of Congress, public and private universities and nonprofit organizations like the Internet Archive have already scanned millions of books and hundreds of millions of documents. The challenge now is not only to continue and expand various digitization projects, but also to unify them in a single, searchable electronic portal. But unlike in Europe, where national libraries are usually centralized and backed by governments, the United States has a disparate network of independent institutions that have different missions and serve different populations.

“We don’t have a central funding source and a central authority,” said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, another member of the steering committee. “We have many different kinds of institutions and many different funding streams.”

These challenges put in sharp relief the main difference between the digital public library and Google’s project: speed.

The idea of scanning every book ever published captivated Larry Page, co-founder of Google, even before he started the company. In 2002, he set out to refute skeptics, who said the idea was unworkable. He set up a makeshift scanning device at Google to see how many books could be scanned in an hour.

The first book he scanned was “The Google Book,” an illustrated children’s story by V. C. Vickers, according to “In the Plex,” a new book about Google by Steven Levy. Eight years later, Google has digitized 15 million books.

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