Special to Flip The Media from David Evans Ph.D.
Last week it was announced that Classmates.com, once among the best known brands on the web, has been retired. Type it into a browser and you will be redirected to MemoryLane.com, a new brand.
The site is dead. Long live the site.
Some thoughts, without my usual degree of research and annotation…as a social psychologist who learned a lot about how social media should and should not work during my two fascinating years there.
I remember sitting next to participants in usability interviews as they found their city, school, and friends’ names. Their emotion was real when they said, “Wow they’re in here?” referring to either a person or school that had once meant a lot to them. That emotion is critical to the success of an online venture. It’s similar to what game developers have to see in their playtests; what they call “fiero” the Italian word for fist-pumping triumph. For Classmates, it was the flush of time travel, the rush of memories activated. Without that emotion, no social media or gaming venture can succeed.
Randy Conrads felt that emotion in 1995 when he found his first friend through an organic online search, prompting him to develop an app so others could too. Scour the version history on Wikipedia’s entry on social networking sites, and you’ll see that it’s not completely clear whether Classmates was the first, or just made the same year as the first.
Other people I interviewed while working there grew up in rural areas whose graduating classes of no more than 20 had scattered to the wind, or more accurately, migrated to the cities. Lost. Or would be except for this site. Those participants called Classmates an “essential service” in helping them to stitch together their frayed communities, if for only a couple of weekends in their lifetimes known as Reunions.
At a time when we were realizing that the internet eliminates the distance between points on the globe, Classmates showed us it could also eliminate the gap between past and present. There was an emotional power in your adolescent friends now seeing the grown-up you, and vice versa. A joy, self-focused yes, and not without a cost, but on the balance a joy many people paid for with countless newsletters to their inboxes, and more membership money than any other site was earning at the time. Fact check this: how much was the New York Times site making in memberships around 1999?
Conrads’ idea worked, allowing him to leave Boeing and do it full time. (As my startup clients say, he left his Clark Kent job to go be Superman.) But did he set out to make a mega-brand? Not likely. It’s just that he had already found a social psychological value proposition that people paid him for (the chance to send a message to an old friend) by the time the first internet bubble burst and ad placements became available for a song. So with the cash he had, he bought some ads. Lots of ads. If you never saw a Classmates ad between, say, 1997 and 2003, you weren’t on the internet. I wonder how many ad-supported ventures survived the lean years at that time because of Classmates’ ad spend.
And in those years, the adoption curve for Classmates looked like it did for Facebook. For MySpace. For Friendster. For AOL.
The real question is, will Facebook’s adoption curve at some point look like Classmates’ does today?
Back at Classmates, we thought a lot about that. I worked with strong market researchers, actually the best empiricists I’d met outside academia. I worked with creative product developers. The graphics popped, the database was snappy. In the darkened back room during usability tests, we spun out great ideas. We aligned the site with people. Like Conrads, we dawned on things people wanted, social things, like that original ability to write an old friend.
But here we are. Our failure to persuade the Classmates leadership is just that, a failure – one we share with the company that had the building blocks and the capital to become…OK why the hell didn’t Classmates become Facebook?
I won’t answer from a business point of view. I’ll speak to what I know (and by the way, I’ve seen nary a page of Classmates since 2007). But in my humble opinion it comes down to these:
1. They never built a feature with random refreshing content. Psychologists have known since the 1950s that people will check something a lot if they don’t know how long it will be until new reinforcing content appears (you never know when something new will appear on your Facebook feed, so you check all the time). And we know people click a lot if they don’t know how many clicks it takes to see new reinforcing content (you never how many hands of Hold Em poker you have to play to win big). Nope. I saw none of that. As a result, Classmates’ stickiness at this time was a few minutes per month whereas Facebooks’ was over an hour.
2. The emotional burst of nostalgia, though powerful, is short lived. Psychologists have also long known about the “oldie but goodie effect.” Goes like this: yes, when you are exposed to something nostalgic that you haven’t seen for a long time, you do love it – you show a “spontaneous recovery” of your old associations and emotions. But following soon after is “re-extinction.” Point is, you stopped talking to the high school friends you found on Classmates once, and you’ll stop talking to them a second time even faster. The main hook of the site was over quick. Draw your own conclusions about what this means for the viability of MemoryLane unless they add other hooks.
3. They failed to take it offline. The only way to stave off the re-extinction of digital-only social content (like photos) is to form new associations and feel new emotions. Seeing your thumbnail is only powerful to me because I once saw your face, heard your jokes, and suffered with you through your painful and painfully funny adolescent moments. Unless I make new memories, the thumbnail goes flat. The path to new memories within the Classmates brand was the reunion. A truly successful site would have set up an oscillation between online interaction and offline reunions, moving people back and forth from the site to the gathering in a repeatable way, all the while generating truly intersting UGC that people wanted to see and share. And for a while there, Classmates could have formed a partnership with the K-12 school system in this country by casting themselves as “trustworthy establishment” and Facebook as “unknown entity.” But of course, that window closed.
4. They never left the schoolyard. Maybe our suggestion that we do the same for churches that we did for schools was a non-starter because we were locked into a brand name everyone knew (the downside of buying all those cheap ads). No doubt, users responded to suggestion after suggestion on our surveys and interviews about what we could make with “I wouldn’t come to Classmates to do that.” But here it is, the new brand name, MemoryLane. Did I say churches? Well, I don’t see Facebook linking the massive faith network in the US. Who is? Maybe that idea wasn’t sexy enough for us thirty-somethings. But looking at it as a consultant in digitally facilitating human relations and feelings…it may be a Conrads idea.
Sadly, without this stuff, I heard people compare Classmates to a bucket with no bottom. The ads brought in a ton of folks. But the site never kept them long. Some are still there, if you take a snapshot, somewhere between “clicking the first letter of your state” and requesting they not be auto-renewed, and they’re still paying their hard earned cash to travel to an earlier time, but many more have and will move on.
We moved on too. I went there as a student of social media. And I graduated. So did many of those colleagues I worked with. Wandered off to other online ventures in Seattle and parts distant, hoping to fulfill the promise of the social web somewhere, for the users we always advocated for, for ourselves. Funny enough, you can’t develop a network if people don’t move on – you all just stay standing on the same point in the social graph. So Classmates is a good place to be from.
Truth: the weekend after I left Classmates, I got on a plane to go to my 20th reunion of the 1987 class of Loveland High School in Loveland, Colorado. I was 37, exactly the same as the average age of Classmates users.
I had learned in my surveys that the most well-attended reunions have 3 events: One is a formal dinner for people who want a reason to put on a nice dress or a suit and go out to celebrate who they’ve become. Two is a happy hour for people who want to come out and say hello but can’t afford the dinner (best held before the dinner to break the ice). Three is a picnic in a park for folks who want to show off their under-21 kids who aren’t welcome in bars and ballrooms. If you fail to have one of these events, your attendance is down (this is the main metric of the success of a reunion) but worse, you alienated some people out of demographics that you would have liked to have seen there. I’m happy to say the Loveland High reunion had all 3 events.
Make no mistake: reunions are magical. And powerful. For those of you curling your lip in disgust, I read that as evidence in favor of my view (you curled your lip the first time you drank scotch and ate bleu cheese too). I know you. I used mad peer pressure to get you to fly in and appear for that class photo. I didn’t give a damn who you wanted to see or not see, I wanted to see you. And all of you admitted you were glad you came.
That’s because you would be hard pressed to name more stirring opportunities to measure the change in your identity over time, your increased wisdom, forbearance, perspective, and all the other things you pay for with aging, weight gain, and hair loss. And after that tense 10-year anniversary when you’re still competing, as humans do, you find yourself at the 20th sincerely cheering the same “becoming” in your childhood peers that you’ve fought so hard for in yourself. Good on ya. You got the degree. You had a mess of kids. I am truly happy to learn this. I am happy for you. I am happy you’re here.
Randy Conrads increased attendance at reunions for 20 years and in an existential way that almost makes up for the sketchy business practices done under the Classmates name after he sold it.
Classmates, like the internet in general, made space small and past present. But people want to do more than connect. They also want to mark time, mature, and make new memories. Facebook is several layers more aligned with human nature, to be sure. But if that gap between human needs (like privacy?) and their digital utilities grows too large, we’ll move on from there too.
Bye Classmates. You grew. You faded. Sold some joy. Pulled some shenanigans. Don’t fault us for leaving – nobody stays in school forever.
David Evans Ph.D. is the CEO of Psychster Inc. a Seattle firm specializing in the psychology of social media. He is also on the faculty of the MCDM.