Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Sad Case of Classmates.Com

Peek-a-boo come-ons like this were used by Classmates.com to get people to sign up.   As it turns out, no one wanted to pay money to find out what happened to their high school chums.

Social networking sites are nothing new.  They have been around for years, and they all seem to have common characteristics.  First, they lose money, generally.  Second, they become wildly popular for a while, and then seem to disappear off the face of the earth.  Third, usually it is when they try to monetize the site is when people walk away - in droves.

I recently received a notice of a class-action settlement concerning Classmates.com.  Supposedly, each person SPAMmed by Classmates is eligible for a $10 settlement for the SPAMming that Classmates did of its users.  These sort of e-mails were along the lines of the ad shown above - "who has been searching for you, Robert?"  or "Robert, someone just signed your guestbook, click here to find out who!"  (the "guestbook" feature was, of course, just someone clicking on your name, not an actual entry.  A click was counted as a "signature" unless the person clicking set their preferences otherwise).

Classmates started out OK, but went over to the dark side rather quickly.  At first, you could sign up for free, and set up an online profile (sounds familiar?  It is just an early version of MySpace, etc.).  You could put a lot into the profile - where you went to high school, college, worked, etc. as well as photos, and other information.   And you could search for other people and read their profiles.  It was somewhat hobbled by the fact that all links were derived by classmate (or collegemate or workmate) status.  But it did work, to some extent.

But then they decided to monetize the site, and suddenly, major features required a monthly membership fee - an amount that, back in the day, would have gotten you monthly Internet service, or at least today, buy you a cup of designer coffee.  Not surprisingly, a lot people didn't think Classmates was worth spending a few dollars a month on.  And since the profile I had created on Classmates (along with a lot of others) was wiped out with the switch to monetization, I decided to delete my name and log off the site - forever.

Classmates specialized in what I call "peek-a-boo" Internet.  It is a popular sport it seems, and all the social networks play it, as well as some odious "survey" sites.  The bait is simple - who, among your long-lost friends, has been searching for you?  What every happened to that hot cheerleader you wanted to date in 10th grade?  Unclaimed money is waiting for you to pick up!  Click here to find out more!  A lot of sites play upon the innate curiosity of people, particularly the nagging fear that someone is looking for you, or that you left money somewhere and forgot about it.

But of course, you "click here" and either your time is just wasted, or they ask for money.  No one is searching for you, and that cheerleader is living in a trailer park, fat and slovenly, and doesn't even remember your name (but she would like to meet you now, that you are successful and apparently wealthy!).  And of course, there is no unclaimed money with your name on it.  But this type of peek-a-boo marketing is designed to get people curious - and get them to click, sign up, or pay.  And it is the premise of most social networking sites, even Facebook.

Facebook differentiated itself from Classmates in that it was not centered around your high school class.  But Facebook has used the same "peek-a-boo" techniques in its marketing - and uses the same "what ever happened to Joe Blow" kind of thing to get people to sign up.  Facebook differentiates itself from Classmates in that it allows you to have friends based on being friends, not on what school you went to.  This is one of the stronger aspects of Facebook, yet the owners seem to fail to realize this.

Classmates ended up screwing the pooch, and now the site is part of something called "Memory Lane" and hopes to revamp itself and re-ignite the magic.  But the sad thing of it is, they had a good site, but apparently got a little too greedy - and damaged the site's reputation as a result.

Or, perhaps, what happened to Classmates (and Friendster, and Reunion.com and Ancestry.com and MySpace, etc.) is just the typical Internet model.  There is not a lot of money to be made in running a "free" website, as the advertisement revenue is not very high.  The only people who advertise on the Internet are the same sorts of odious people who advertise on Glenn Beck's show - gold bugs and penis enlargers - and as a result, they don't pay much for ad space.

So, trying to make a living on "one trick of the tiny belly" revenue, or on "click here for this one trick to save money on car insurance" revenue, is hard to do.  What you need is not crappy Internet scam ads, but Proctor and Gamble, major automakers, and other serious "legitimate" business advertising.

And that, I think, is the lesson of Classmates.com - a lesson that is apparently lost on Facebook.  If Facebook is to survive and prosper, it has to shed the aura of crappy internet ads and come-ons.  People tire of being lied to and being scammed.  And for some reason, other sites seem to attract major sponsors and advertisers, but Facebook remains entrenched in the shady side of the Internet.  Why this is, I do not know.  But perhaps it is just a characteristic of social networking sites - and their destiny.