, APRIL 11, 2007
 (STAR) By Ann Corvera - In earlier Friendster days, the site was more known as an avenue to meet new people, "reunite" with long lost friends and find dating prospects — not just within your vicinity, as your personal profile was taken to the global space of the Internet.

I started using Friendster in 2003. Like many others, it was by word of mouth that I learned about it, and I was instantly amazed at how ties were rekindled with people I had not had contact with for ages — some from way back in my kindergarten days, I might add — and how a friend of a friend of a friend, I later realized, was also my friend!

Friendster started out to demonstrate how the so-called small world phenomenon worked as a byproduct of social networking. As its fan base grew, so did the demands and so did the inspiration for the people behind Friendster to enhance and add more features.

An online "slum book" of sorts wherein all you needed were a computer and a modem to make things happen, Friendster soon became a social networking success in itself.

In a sociable yet introverted society like ours, it did not take long before Friendster became a hit online tool to add color to one’s social life in a way that was both personal and impersonal.

Presently, hardly a day passes by without Filipino Friendsters stopping and taking a look at what’s happening on their pages, who have uploaded new photos, if there are any pending testimonials or messages to approve — or trash — who have checked them out, etcetera.

With nearly seven million Filipinos visiting Friendster once a month and most users checking the site’s accounts on a daily basis, Filipinos are indeed in Friendster frenzy, and they, along with 40 million users worldwide, are being given more reasons to go gaga over the site.

As Friendster marketing and public relations director Jeff Roberto tells The STAR: "If the users are happy then they have more reasons to stay and keep using our service."

How they do that, Roberto says, is by continuing to "innovate and release very cutting-edge product features to serve the users."

Friendster has definitely improved its content over the years with personal profiles that have user-friendly customized controls so that your page reflects your personality, a neat-looking layout, and an advanced user interface.

It’s now more than just typing in the usual personal stuff about yourself, or likes and dislikes, your hometown, which schools you’ve attended, and where you are now professionally.

"Friendster inspires creativity," it says in a media release, and creativity includes freeing the writer in you with its new blog module.

This feature allows users to let their thoughts flow from their brain onto their page while gaining access to the stories of others in the network. Plus, the new photo module makes sharing photos with friends much easier. And because having a Friendster blog comes with its own address, it’s easier to view yours and your friends’.

In spite of its new facets, the Friendster page doesn’t look cluttered and confusing. And even if you’re uploading photos, video and audio while running on a snail’s paced Internet connection, there’s no need to worry as the site’s innovated technology allows an increase of speed and performance.

Using its new "sandbox" feature for embedding content, sounds, video, photo albums, links to other websites and other files can now be uploaded without a snag.

"We launched the video feature about a year ago and we’re feeding video in from a number of different websites, and you can quickly add a video to your profile or for a friend," Roberto explains.

Intuitive of the demands of users and receptive to complaints, Friendster ensures that its features are easy-to-use and relevant like having a "friend tracker," a daily consolidated view of real-time updates about your friends that include birthdays and new photos, among other updates displayed on your homepage.

The Friendster birthday alert is a "huge feature that a lot of people love," Roberto says. Who wouldn’t when this feature makes life easier for users, as it acts as a "Web-based alarm clock"?

Friendster has the quick stats on you displayed on your page, showing the number of friends on your list and bookmarked users, as well as the "controversial" ‘Who’s Viewed Me’ feature, as what Roberto calls it.

With just one click, you might find that an old flame has popped out of nowhere to check you out. But there’s a catch: You can only see the users who have viewed you if you choose the option not to view other pages "anonymously."

"It’s a two-way street," says Roberto with a chuckle during a press conference in his recent visit to Manila to personally update this Friendster-crazy nation on what’s new and upcoming.

Ironically, the "Who’s Viewed Me" feature is one of the most checked out pages among users, he reveals.

Friendster has also made it easier for a user tracing her college and high school roots by adding a feature where you can simply input the names of your schools and the years you’ve attended them, and Friendster will do the hard work of searching the network for a match.

Launched recently, the feature, Roberto explains, figures out who else on Friendster went to the same school at the same time… "and we start showing you these people so you can add them or get updated" about what’s new in their lives.

The comments and testimonials’ modules are also a hit on Friendster, giving your friends a way to connect to you by saying something about you or your photo or video, even audio recordings — with the user’s approval, of course.

It’s easy to get bored with something that’s a mere fad. For a social networking site like Friendster, interactivity to go along with enhancements and what’s latest is crucial in giving users reasons to keep logging on.

Founded in 2002 in California by entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams as a "social experiment," Friendster has long established itself as a go-to site when it comes to social gains. And amid a lot of competition these days, it has upped the ante in the online social networking game by going further beyond functions people already know about.

For one, you can be your own celebrity in Friendster if you can be transparent about your profile.

"If you put your last name on your profile and you choose to have it displayed, when someone searches for your name in Google, chances are your Friendster page will appear on the results page and that’s a way of promoting yourself," Roberto says.

Celebrities like Brad Turvey, Nancy Castiglione, Mo Twister, Luis Alandy and Kitchie Nadal are "Friendster fans," who were guests at the press conference hosted by television personality Sam Oh, a Friendster fan herself.

Introducing the fan profile feature, these celebs and many other personalities can now efficiently build their communities to promote not just themselves but their events as well.

This feature automatically sends several types of e-mails to fans, triggered by the fan profile owner’s activity, Friendster says.

The fan profile module, Roberto points out, can even be used by politicians like what they did in the United States, as he shows the profile of popular presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"This is not live yet. We’ve got feedback wherein people want to connect not just to artists, models, celebrities but also politicians and non-profit groups so we’re going to build special profile types for them and allow them to build a fan base," he says.

"We’re going to test this in the Philippines," he says, adding that Friendster is currently looking for beta testers for this program.

"We’re rolling this out pretty slowly because there are a lot of impersonators out there and we have to be careful. A lot of work needs to be done here," Roberto says.

"We’re going to build an auto-accept feature that would allow fans to link up with the personality. We’re going to build a tracker for the fan page... and the profile will be optimized for search so when you type in her name on Google, you can quickly go to her page which is very cool. And it can be used as a promotional vehicle," he adds.

In the Friendster network, you can be just as popular as the celebrities.

The new explore page enables users to get quick access to whose photos are "grabbed the most," users who are "most discussed" and the "most popular," and recent photos uploaded by your friends. "So it’s a new way to discover the site and we’re going to continue developing this," Roberto says.

Before Roberto joined Friendster about two years ago, he tells The STAR that he had been a user for almost a year and he saw how the site "was going to revolutionize the social medium."

"When I first started using the site, just after I moved to San Francisco, I was using it to meet people in the area for friends, for dating… so I saw the power it had and when I was given the opportunity for an interview, I grabbed it," he recalls.

A 10-year veteran in consumer Web marketing, Roberto has managed various multi-faceted marketing programs in social media, e-commerce, product development and Internet-related companies and services.

During his presentation, Roberto notes how "different the product works today from how it was originally launched."

"You get a bigger content… As you update your page, all the friends you’re connected to are updated about what’s happening in your life," he says.

It used to be that Friendster sends one newsletter globally, but Roberto says, "It just wasn’t working."

"So we broke it down into regions… We needed to break it down specifically into regions. We send one to Asia, the US, Canada and the rest of the world… with featured profiles and other latest information," he adds.

The groups module of Friendster is another feature that underwent revamp.

"It has been up for quite some time now and we added subscriptions to it and we now include it in your homepage so if you belong to a group you get updates on your homepage," Roberto says.

With all these new and upgraded features, Friendster makes social connections more appealing, as the real world meets the virtual world.

Face-to-face relations naturally are still more in taste. On the other hand, in the time-constrained world we live in, online social networking provides a faster and similarly interesting way to connect and reconnect with people with Friendster serving as a vehicle of doing it the safest and most secure way possible.

It’s a small world after all, and with Friendster, it gets even smaller.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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