When most of us think about online social networks, we most probably think about Facebook. Facebook is by far the most popular social networking site we have today with 500 million Facebook users.
However, Mark Zuckerberg was definitely not the first person to ever have built a social network – he was just the first to succeed in the way that he did.
In truth, one of the first social networks to really take off, was named Sixdegrees.com.
It was founded by Andrew Weinreich, a well known entrepreneur & internet executive. Weinreich started his career working as a financial analyst and after a short while, went back to school to study law. He worked as a legal professional for 2 years. It was during this time that he devised the concept of an online social network which made the process of "meeting people you do not know through the people you do know" more efficient.
It was in 1997 that he launched Sixdegrees. At it's peak, the site had 3,500,000 users and 100 employees. Weinreich later sold the site to Youthstream Media Networks in December 2000 for US $ 125 million. Weinreich is currently the CEO of meetMoi – a location based mobile dating service, as well as the chairman of Xtify, a platform for geo-targeted mobile messaging.
Sixdegrees was based on the web of contacts type of social networking. Weinreich drew his inspiration from the theory that every person in the world is connected to every other person by not more than six steps, otherwise known as the the concept of "six degrees of separation". It was also the first social networking site to combine features found on other dating sites & community sites into one. Users could create personal profiles, set up friend lists and surf friend lists belonging to other users within their network. They could send each other messages, affiliate themselves with networks as well as send their family & friends invitations to become members of Sixdegrees.
Writing this now in 2010, none of this seems that impressive. However, back in 1997, no other site offered a combination of these features.
Unfortunately, Sixdegrees did not last very long, and it certainly did not leverage the popularity or support that a site such as Facebook has today. There were a number of reasons that contributed to the failure of this social network:
1) At the time, web technology was not yet developed to the point where it was able to support the features that were needed to make this kind of application successful;
2) Despite their 3,500,000 registered users, Sixdegrees could not accumulate the amount of users needed before their money ran out;
3) The features available to Sixdegrees users were not as engaging as they could have been & failed to keep their users coming back;
4) Factors which were outside of the company's control had a detrimental effect on it's ability to make a profit from online advertising. These events included a post-April 2000 recession, as well as 9/11, and;
5) The online advertising industry was not mature enough to provide enough online advertisers to support their business model.
Factors 4 & 5 probably contributed the most to their downfall, however, Sixdegrees marked the beginning of a new era in online communication & networking. Despite it's short-lived success, it paved the way for the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn and many more.