Life after users: The Detroits of the Internet

They were once busy, bustling sites with lots of traffic and personal interaction. Then the users went away. What happened?

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Established: 2002

Peak users: 115 million worldwide

Current status: Surviving as a regional and gaming site

Friendster was meant as a competitor to dating sites, but based on the notion that friends of friends would make for more likely romantic partners than complete strangers. The reality was that in our electronic age, true friendships have frayed or disintegrated. So the connections were weak, and with weak friend connections, well, the site didn't serve much purpose.

Rumors emerged in 2004 that the site was considering charging registered users for the basic service. Whether management actually planned to or not makes no difference, users fled the site for the new, up-and-coming MySpace.

Growing desperate, the site allowed users to seek out strangers on the site, which created what were known as "Fakesters." That only worsened the problem. With the rise of Facebook, it was all over. By 2006, the site was dead in the water, only used in a few regions like southeast Asia. The site limped along for three more years before a very poorly done redesign killed it. You can't launch a Web page in 2009 that looks like it was designed for 1999. There was no mobility support, geolocation apps, and so on.

The site still exists today, but as an online gaming site.


Established: January 22, 2004

Peak users: 33 million

Current status: Alive in Brazil, dead in the U.S.

Google became famous for its 20% time policy, which allowed employees to take the equivalent of one day a week to work on their own side projects. Orkut was one project born out of this perk, now considered dead in the water.

The social network was named after "Orkut Büyükkökten", a Turkish software engineer at Google who created it. He apparently did this twice. Büyükkökten previously worked for Affinity Engines, where he developed a similar network called InCircle. In late June 2004, Affinity Engines filed suit against Google, claiming that Büyükkökten and Google based Orkut on InCircle code. It was kind of hard to deny it, since Orkut had nine identical bugs found in InCircle.

Originally, the Orkut community required an invitation by an existing member, although people soon found ways around that. For whatever reason, word of mouth in Brazil drove the greatest growth, and most of these people spoke Portuguese, not English. So Americans began bailing in favor of the new hot thing, MySpace. In 2007, Indians began flocking to the site as well.

Today, the site is almost entirely used by people outside the U.S. but abandoned by English-speakers. Its last user count put it at 33 million, with 62% from Brazil and 19% from India.


Established: December 5, 2004

Peak traffic: Top 100 ranked on Alexa in 2010

Current status: Barely hanging on

"Death by Redesign." That's the title for the biography of Digg, a site that had it all and blew it through some really awful, but well-intentioned redesigns. Launched as yet another news aggregator, Digg had subsections for different types of news and items of interest, the ability to vote a story up or down, profanity filters and the ability to mark stories as inaccurate.

But the company was its own nemesis. Its DiggBar was despised for causing more harm than good. Then it came out that a small clique of users were controlling much of the content. The company kept redesigning the front page, which drove users nuts.

Finally, Digg version 4 was so bad it drove many users into the arms of Reddit. Version 4 was often unreachable for weeks. When people could get to the site, they found many features -- like bury, favorites, friends submissions, upcoming pages, subcategories, videos and history search -- were gone. That was the end.

Digg was finally sold off in pieces to three different companies in 2012. Betworks got the site, LinkedIn got some patents and some staff went to the Washington Post's SocialCode. However, the new owners finally got control of the monster and have given it a decent interface. Traffic has been rising this year and Digg is starting to recover.

The Velvet Rope

Established: 1995

Peak users: Unknown

Current status: Dead

This one pains me. I joined the site in 2000 when it first opened up to the public. My first work as a journalist was with music magazines, interviewing my favorite bands. I still had a few tenuous connections to the industry and this site helped me make a few more.

A&R executive Julie Gordon found an AOL message board called Record Industry Dirt that had no dirt. She used multiple identities to share the insider information she knew, and the board exploded in popularity. In 1995, she moved to the Web with The Velvet Rope.

Although intended to be strictly an insider's board for music industry pros, outsiders like me wandered in. But music industry veterans hung around for quite a while. However, reflective of the implosion in the music industry, The Rope imploded. There would be a discussion of layoffs, someone would say they were laid off and had had it with the music industry and would vanish.

Gordon herself checked out a few years back, selling the site to Tiwary Entertainment. Their neglect is so bad that a banner ad hyping Brooke Shields's run as Morticia Addams in a New York theater version of "The Addams Family" is still up, even though the play ran in 2011.

Honorable Mentions:

Tripod: one of the first personal page sites, along with GeoCities and Angelfire, today limps along in slow decline.

Lycos: The owner of Tripod, this search engine is still in business but falling fast.

Angelfire: Owned for a while by Lycos, it's still in business but does not offer free pages and is also fading out.

Excite: Another original search engine, but barely registering a pulse. The site still looks like something out of the 1990s.

ICQ: Uh oh! The first instant messenger for the PC, they made the same mistake as WinAMP: they sold the business to AOL. AOL would pretty much abandon ICQ in favor of its own IM product, although ICQ retains popularity in some parts of the world. A once-popular site for DVD enthusiasts, the site played a prank on its users, saying CNet was buying out the site and shutting it down. It backfired, and users abandoned the page.

DejaNews: Originally a front-end search engine for Usenet, Google bought it out and made it unusable with a horrendous interface. A fun site where people could comment on TV commercials, it now redirects to

Coda: Detroit reborn

Almost any of the sites above face the possibility of a comeback. Digg in particular is looking fairly impressive. Its numbers are up and the community knows the gang that couldn't shoot straight (i.e., former management), is gone.

So it goes for the city we've compared these sites to, Motown. The Motor City. Detroit. It's become a symbol of urban decay and abandonment as numerous photo essays document the collapse of the city following the collapse of the automotive industry.

True, there are many parts of Detroit that are ripe for another season of "Life After People" (really, History Channel, cancelling that but airing "The Great Santini Brothers?") but the city is starting to prosper in other industries, one of them being tech.

The biggest gun is Compuware, which has moved from the suburbs to Detroit itself and now employes 4,300 people. That's not much for a car company but for a tech firm it's big, especially given their business is mainframe software.

Then there's Quicken Loans, an e-lender; Galax.E, an IT solution provider; Marketing Associates, which does exactly what the name implies, professional marketing; and RTT USA, which develops 3D visualization software, plus hundreds of small startups A group of firms, led by Compuware, formed "IT in the D" to help fund startups.

Detroit is one of several cities that are enjoying rising tech sectors, buoyed by California's exodus of people and the fact that the Silicon Valley is virtually unaffordable unless you are paid a king's wages. Million dollar homes are routine, and routinely out of reach to most people. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri, Charlotte, NC, Phoenix, AZ and Detroit are all enjoying tech growth, following in the footsteps of Pittsburgh, the city defined by Andrew Carnegie's steel factories. The steel went away and has been slowly replaced by tech firms.

So hang in there, Kuro5shin. You, too, MySpace. Maybe your day will come again.

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