In February 2016 the first mainstream social networking site in the UK, Friends Reunited, closed down.
In the spring of 2003, while on a walking trip in Slovakia, a friend told me about the website Friends Reunited, and so, like thousands of other people, I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my classmates from school. Before the arrival of internet social networks, the lives and fates of old schoolmates, and others with whom you had lost contact, were unknown; and that was particularly true if you had moved away from your home area. So the opportunities provided by Friends Reunited were new and exciting.
The site offered a choice of institutions (schools, colleges, universities) to which people could add their name and details. But there was no doubt that the main institution attracting nostalgic curiosity was secondary school, with a special attachment to the leaving year, the time in your life, when you moved from childhood to adulthood, fell in love and deepened your friendships. I felt a need to connect to my former fellow pupils, who had accompanied me in my journey from child to adolescent, all of whom I had unintentionally lost contact with when I was sixteen in 1978. So then, aged forty, a new window was opening in cyberspace, which would satisfy my voyeuristic curiosity and would provide me a psychological bridge back to a formative period of my life.
Of course, I knew that Friends Reunited was not there primarily to reunite friends, but to make money. You had to negotiate your way through the flashing banners for dating agencies and get blocked whenever you want to say something that fell outside their template for nostalgia. In the early years of the site you were forbidden, unless you paid, to send your email address to anyone, or to write anything more than the most anodyne notes to others.
In 2003 there were themed notice boards on which you were invited to post your memories about your former school. On each one I decided to take up the theme and compose a written memory sketch, so the topics of my contributions were decided by Friends Reunited, not by me. No sooner had I finished than the notice boards were reserved for subscribing members (£5 and later £7.50 p.a). I never paid Friends Reunited anything, and nor would it seem did many other ex-students, so my posts for a long time retained their first place position on most of the boards.
At the end of decade the experiment which was Friends Reunited had been overtaken by other social networking sites such as Facebook. Friends Reunited abandoned its attempt to charge fees for ordinary members, made its service free and attempted to expand its social networking functions. By this time, however, most people, particularly the young, had lost interest in the site and new postings became fewer. And in January 2016 the site close down for good.
I abandoned Friends Reunited in the mid 2000s as a tool of communication, but occasionally used it thereafter as a source of reference. Yet there two things about Friends Reunited that could never be picked up on or improved by the newer social networks. One was the honesty of contributors. In the early days of social networking, people were far less internet savvy. They did not fear using their own names, or worry about what they said hanging around on the Internet for eternity. The other was textual completeness: they wrote a reasonably full exposition of what they wanted to say, not short comments to ongoing ephemeral debates, as with Twitter or Facebook messaging. All that, plus the fact that people were commenting on a single subject, namely their school years, gave much of the material at Friends Reunited an ongoing relevance and interest.
But most of all the closure removed access for ever to a mass of material, photos, chat and reminiscences, and did so far more effectively than water or fire could ever destroy paper records. Many think that the Internet serves to retain information for eternity, making no comment ever ephemeral, and indeed that is often true. But it is also true that millions of pages of information can be taken down, removed from servers and denied to future historians and memoirists. To be fair, Friends Reunited has provided (but for how long?) a facility for users to retrieve their own digital photos, but this does little to address the problem of the long-term loss of millions of reminiscences and other comments from public record.
We should not forget, however, that Friends Reunited from start to finish was primarily a business which acted to maximise profits, not to maintain public records. And although the commercialisation of private nostalgia is in many ways an ugly thing, Friends Reunited nevertheless provided a service which was of value to many.