Before There Was Facebook: A Short, Subjective, Incomplete Insider’s History of PlanetAll

This is one of the posts that I wrote on Wednesday during the great NaBloPoMo purge of 2011.

My first job out of college was as a “Customer Service Ambassador” at PlanetAll, a startup in Cambridge, Mass. Before there was Facebook, there were MySpace and Friendster. Before there was Friendster there were PlanetAll and SixDegrees. We were bigger and more successful than our rival, but you’ve probably never heard of either of us.

PlanetAll was an early online community, possibly the earliest social network site. It wanted to be Facebook, but it didn’t know it. Like LinkedIn, it let you keep track of your professional details and make connections. Like (early) Facebook it let you join groups and post messages to the group and share information about high school reunions and useful stuff like that. (If YouTube had existed, it would have let you share links to cute pet videos.) Unlike Facebook it was thought up by a guy after his graduation so that he could keep in touch with people. (Unlike Zuckerburg, who invented FB as a college student so that he could keep track of people down the hall.)

It had good press, back in the day when magazines like PC World and Wired mattered. It had lots of venture capital. It had a shit-ton of newly minted MIT CompSci grads to write code for the web site and for an app to synchronize contact data with your Palm Pilot. (Remember those?)

But what it never had was a profit. In the six months in 1997-1998 that I was there, they burned through a lot of cash. And then one day—just after Christmas—there was a staff meeting telling us about the half of the staff that they let go (including my boss and 2/3 of my customer service cronies).

That’s when I started revising my résumé and checking out who was hiring in the Boston area. It’s good that I left, but it was hard hearing the news a few months later that Amazon bought PlanetAll along with another company for $280 million. True, I had exercised what few stock options were available to me before I left, but if I’d stayed a little longer, I would be writing this trip down memory lane in a house that I could have paid for in one shot.

Why did Amazon buy PlanetAll? It’s because of you and your friends and everyone that you know. Amazon wanted the customer list of PlanetAll to fold into its then-emerging community features: think wishlists and recommendations. And they wanted the idea behind PlanetAll; Amazon used PlanetAll as part of its patent application on social networking.

Basically Amazon saw the potential of PlanetAll better than the executives in the company did. The people running the company thought in terms of “contacts” and always-up-to-date “connections” and hoped that these early social networking ideas would encourage you to come to the web site often enough and long enough so that they could make enough ad “impressions” to turn a profit one day. Unlike Facebook, the web wasn’t mature enough to keep you on the site long enough or to make you want to come back. It just wasn’t interactive enough. No chat. No posting of photos or videos. No good way to see a stream of status updates.

They web just wasn’t ready to be used as a platform. In fact, the primary way of communicating was the pre-Web: e-mail. They built a “mail cannon” to deliver all of the status updates and class newsletters and jokes-of-the-day and swingers ads and whatnot. While you did need to visit the site to make new connections or join new groups, the tools for finding people to link were primitive, and it never got a critical mass of users.

Plus the technology often failed. Everything was hacked together. I learned SQL so that I could fix database problems and restart stalled processes. I learned shell scripting so that I could relaunch the mail cannon after deleting lots of unset messages. (Sorry if yours was one of them.) And I learned SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) so that I could pretend I was a computer and debug why the mail cannon wasn’t working.

In a nutshell, PlanetAll was a good idea that hatched before its time. It failed to thrive in a web ecosystem that wasn’t nourishing enough to keep it going. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t successful or important. Part of $280 million is a lot of loot just for an idea. Then again, PlanetAll’s part of $280 million is a minuscule fraction of all of Facebook’s $100 billion current valuation.

This entry was posted in General, History, Life Lessons, NaBloPoMo, NaBloPoMo 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Before There Was Facebook: A Short, Subjective, Incomplete Insider’s History of PlanetAll

  1. Mike Trout says:

    Jeff — you MUST remember me! I was an early adopter and PlanetAll evangelist — starting with my Panama Canal Group at PlanetAll, and umpteen subgroups (Panama Canal Group Golfers at Planetall, etc) … can’t remember how many anymore, but I would say that I brought at least hundreds of users to the site (and, yes – return visitors). I was SO disappointed when PlanetAll shut down.

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