Interview: Kent Lindstrom, Friendster CTO

Friendster was launched in 2002 by Netscape alumni, Jonathan Abrams. The site is based upon the natural premise of friends connecting friends – or social (networked) clusters, as the academics like to call it. Since that time, the site has grown to over one million connected users, spawned fan and parody sites, and resulted in new romances, business contacts and friendships. Friendster’s CTO, Kent Lindstrom, was nice enough to answer a few of my questions:
Why start Friendster?
Our founder (Jonathan Abrams) wanted to meet his friend’s friend for dating, making new friends, etc. He found regular dating sites creepy and too focused on just dating. At the same time in an increasingly mobile and time-pressed society, traditional ways to connect through friends (meeting at dinner parties, etc.) were fairly scarce. So Jonathan figured out a simple way to use the web to facilitate and accelerate the concept of friends meeting friends, and thus was born Friendster.

How were some members of the team first introduced to coding?
We have a lot of engineers — but most of them go all the way back to college and high school. Three of them have written published, well-respected books on various engineering topics.

What about “social” software or systems design replicates the physical word?
Links convey information! The fact that someone is connected to your friend “Roger Jones” probably tells you a LOT about that someone.

How do these systems than augment or redesign traditional social interaction?
What would you ask them for? On Friendster, you can find someone who you think is interesting (into metalworking, interesting appearance, or whatever) and THEN ask your friends for details or an intro. It just doesn’t happen that way in the real world.

What issues does Friendster face as the site grows and you look to build out new features?
Technically we’ll be adding things like chat capability, blocking — more network management — all kinds of stuff! So we need to build out an engineering team, which we are doing. Culturally? Who knows. We hope to be a part of the cultural landscape for a long time!

Do you think Friendster would have taken off in 1990? 1995?
No, no and no. Friendster only could have taken off after people realized that using the web to connect with people was basically OK — once really strong relationships among great people — including marriages and babies — started emerging from Match.com and sites like that. Once that was OK, you still needed to remove the anonymity that plagues sites like Match.com, which is what Jonathan did in founding Friendster.

What new directions for social systems do you think could evolve beyond recent projects?
I’m not sure ANY will. We don’t really have a new social system — just an online way to live within the oldest social system in the World.

Is the team just a bunch of startup junkies?
We’ve had experience starting companies, but also some big firm experience as well. I ran a finance and strategy practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP and Jonathan worked at both Nortel and Netscape.

What 2-3 gadgets could you not live without?
Laptop, palm pilot, wine opener.

What other applications or websites do you find interesting these days?
Google! Their innovations (news, shopping at Froogle, etc.) are something to watch.

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Interview: Derek Sivers, CDBaby

In 1998 Derek started CDBaby out of a simple apartment in New York, as a means to sell his own music online. Since that date, the site has sold over 500,000 CDs on behalf of the 44,000 artists represented. The operation in Portland, Oregon is second only to Amazon in the sale of independent music online. So we asked Derek a few questions:
What got you started working with computers?
A TRS-80 back in 1981. I even taught a class in BASIC computer programming at the local junior high school!

What was the name of your first band? And what kind of music did you do?
Hit Me. A cross between James Brown and the Beatles. Since I’m out of our old CD and didn’t feel like pressing up any more copies, I put the whole thing up for full download at dereksivers.com.

What are the most memorable concerts you have seen?
Only one: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. New York City. 4th row. “Mustt Mustt” made me cry.

What are the biggest challenges independent musicians face online and off? besides Money.
Getting into the right mindset.

Imagine this: as a songwriter, you’re used to everything coming from the inside of you, out to the world. You spend hours trying to express your innermost feelings. Describing your emotions in words. It’s all from the INside, going OUT.

But in order to understand how your music fits into the world, you need to do the exact opposite. You have to think from the OUTside, IN. You have to perceive yourself from the point of view of millions of strangers that don’t (yet) care about your innermost feelings.

In order to be a great songwriter, you have to think of everything from your introspective point of view. But in order to be a great promoter, you have to think of everything from the other person’s point of view.

It’s a very hard mindset switch to make. That’s the biggest hurdle. If you get over that, it changes the entire way you view your career, and how you can be valuable to the world.

Do the top sellers on CD Baby match the top sellers of Billboard-like charts in any way? (genre, for example)
Not at all. Totally different crowd. People that shop at CD Baby are like people that go find organic produce. They’re the ones that care enough to want the best of the best, not just what’s force-fed to them.

What is the craziest recording you have run into on CD Baby?
I have about 35 different answers to that. Check out the “Flavor” galleries I put together.

If tomorrow you were told CD Baby could no longer exist, what would you do in its place?
There’s no way of knowing, in advance. I’ve learned how to follow whatever excites me, which could change at any time.

What item, software or hardware, do you think no musician should live without?
The “OFF” switch on their computer. And the compass in their gut that points them towards what really excites them the most.

What gadgets could you not live without?
Brain, heart, and lungs. Everything else is just extra. You could take away everything I own (which isn’t much) and I’d just shrug. I really don’t care about any stuff. Not even this laptop that’s at my fingertips for every waking hour.

What applications or websites have your attention these days?
I really don’t go to other people’s sites much, believe it or not! I’m just programming all day long. I use a program called Quanta on the FreeBSD operating system and the Mozilla web browser, while listening to CD Baby CDs!

Oh! Wait: one site has changed the way I think about web design: CSSzengarden. Look at the HTML code. No font tags. No graphics. No tables. Click some “Select a Design” options. Amazing. Bringing HTML back to its original intentions: to just declare the *purpose* of the contents of your page. (header, list, paragraph, block.) Then letting a CSS file entirely determine how those contents will look.

Interview: Daniel Chan, Daypop

Daniel Chan is the founder of Daypop, a self-described “current events search engine.” Each day, the Daypop system scours a wide array of news websites, zines, and blogs to find the most popular story links, weblogs and memes. At the time of this interview, Daypop indexes over 59,000 sites daily. Daniel also runs the we::blog service and has fond memories of the TRS-80. Now for the interview…
How did you get started in the land of computers and code?
My first computer was a TRS-80 Color Computer. I begged my parents for a computer because I thought it was a sneaky way of getting something to play videogames. They didn’t go for my “Colecovision is an educational tool” sales pitch. When I got bored with the few games that I had, I cracked open the BASIC manual that came with the computer. It was like discovering a pirate’s map to hidden treasure. It was a revelation when I realized I could learn to program my own games.

Why create Daypop?
Daypop fills a niche in the web search world. Back when I came up with the idea for Daypop, search engines had two month cycle times. This was during the 2000 Presidential Elections. I wanted my news and opinions of the soap opera that was unfolding! I wanted to be able to keyword search all the news sites out there and all the blogs. I was keeping a blog at the time and I wanted to know: what do other people think? I was primarily interested in other people’s opinions but news and fact-finding is always a good complement.

Explain your reasons behind the launch of BlogStats, Word Bursts and Wishlists?
Blogstats is for the ego surfer in all of us. I think the most used feature of Daypop is the citations feature that allow bloggers to see who’s linking to them. Blogstats builds on this idea to find like-minded writers using similarity algorithms.

I created Word Bursts because I noticed a couple memes that wouldn’t get listed on the Daypop Top 40 because there were no authoritative links to ANCHOR THE MEME. These memes, then, are defined primarily by phrases or words and picking out heightened usage of words from blogs in the past few days is a good way of singling out these anchorless memes.

Wishlists were created to find out what people want in terms of music, movies and books. The interesting thing to note about the Wishlist analysis is that these are products that people DID NOT run out to buy themselves, but rather, are products that they’d appreciate as a gift. In other words, they are not necessarily items that people would spend their own money on. Having said that, I think there’s probably a pretty high correlation between being popular on Wishlists and being a popular product.

What are some of the craziest Word Bursts you have seen?
Nothing too crazy. I like the words that are not proper nouns. Words that reflect something deeper than any particular event. Words like Stagnation and Complicit.

How global does it appear Weblogging has become?
It is a global phenomenon. I noticed early on Brazil just exploded. The number of Brazilian Blogs was almost outpacing English ones at one point. Now, there are so many from Europe and Asia, it’s hard to keep track of all the countries tha blog. I know that we::blog, the free blogging service that I’ve run since way before Daypop, is now home to many, many Malaysian blogs.

Do you see any patterns in the transfer of new information?
There’s the concept of reputation managers, or people you trust to bring you news that interests you. They effectively act as middlemen and filter multiple sources to provide summaries of topics of interest. And then there’s the meta-managers like Daypop and all the other link ranking sites that exist now, that in turn aggregate these sources to provide breaking news. It’s interesting that any one expert blogger can easily miss something important, but as a collective whole, breaking news is caught fast.

What challenges does Daypop face in its quest for tracking information popularity?

Daypop is currently not scalable. It runs off one box and does full text indexing of hundreds of thousands of pages every day. The indexing limits Daypop’s ability to track blogs because it’s such an expensive operation. If tracking links were all I cared about then the one box could handle millions of blogs, but I don’t want to lose the ability to keyword search, so I’m contemplating rewriting Daypop to allow it to run in a distributed environment.

What new developments do you see harnessing the momentum of weblogs?
I think the power of weblogs is often overstated. It is less revolution and more evolution. It’s a powerful, efficient method of self-publishing. Blogs make it simple to write on a whim and continue writing, but it doesn’t create writers out of everyone.

I use blogs these days to write about things I learn and to augment my memory, which is getting worse the older I get. It’s a way for me to record my knowledge so I’m less apt to repeat history. So there’s maybe something there in sharing knowledge through blogs.

What 2-3 gadgets could you not live without?
I used to take a digital camera with me EVERYWHERE. I took pictures of everything, both to keep a visual record and also to try and capture those beautiful fleeting moments. I used a Nikon 950 and that thing went with me — backpacking through Europe, traveling through Asia, trekking through Borneo and hiking American urban jungles — for years, until it finally gave up the ghost. The Coolpix 4500 I got to replace it just doesn’t live up to the legend.

More recently, my iPod (old model 20GB) has been on continuous play. Strangely, I don’t bring it around with me, thereby making use of its portability. Instead it sits on my desk at work cranking out tunes.

What applications or website have your attention these days?

Friendster created a blip on my radar a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, in its current incarnation, it just doesn’t have lasting appeal to me, but I think the potential is there for something very cool