Ghosts of Social Media Past: 8 Dead Social Networks and What We Can Learn from Their Demise

Social media is a ruthless business. For every Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, there are countless other platforms that enjoyed a moment in the spotlight before fading into irrelevance. Some, like Myspace, were once industry titans that got outmaneuvered by savvier competitors. Others, like Eons or iTunes Ping, never really took off at all.

But while the specific reasons behind each failure vary, there are common threads and crucial lessons that today‘s social media marketers can‘t afford to ignore. In this deep dive, we‘ll exhume the digital remains of 8 defunct social platforms to understand what went wrong and what their stories can teach us about finding success in the cutthroat world of social media.

The Precambrian Era of Social Networking

First, some context. The early history of social media is littered with pioneering platforms that established many of the features and formats we take for granted today, even if the names are unfamiliar. According to digital historian Susannah Fox, the very first "social network" was the Berkeley Community Memory (1973), a coin-operated bulletin board system that allowed users to share messages.

By the late 1990s, the Internet boom was in full swing and early web-based communities like Classmates.com (1995), SixDegrees (1997) and LiveJournal (1999) began to crop up. While primitive by today‘s standards, these proto-social networks introduced concepts like user profiles, friends lists and blog-style posts.

The real game-changer was Friendster (2002), generally considered the first modern social network. Let‘s start our autopsy there.

Friendster (2002-2015)

Key stats:

  • Peak users: 115 million (2008)
  • Peak traffic ranking: #53 globally (2008)

Friendster pioneered now-ubiquitous mechanics like mutual friends and user testimonials. So ubiquitous, in fact, that Friendster held key patents, which would later be acquired by Facebook for $40 million.

In its heyday in the early-mid 2000s, Friendster was the undisputed king of social networking, particularly in Southeast Asia. But even as the site‘s user base skyrocketed, cracks began to show. Frequent outages and slow page loads frustrated users. A site redesign in 2009 was buggy and widely panned. Meanwhile, a little upstart named Facebook was waiting in the wings.

Sruthi Krishnan, a tech industry analyst, explained to The Wall Street Journal what happened next:

"[Friendster] didn‘t continue to innovate and develop itself fast enough. People got bored and the younger crowd shifted to Facebook. Although Friendster had a loyal following, it didn‘t build on the product."

Friendster attempted a pivot to social gaming in 2011, but it was too little, too late. The company ceased operations in 2015, though its patents live on as part of Facebook‘s IP war chest.

Lessons learned:

  • Rapid growth is great, but not at the expense of user experience. Buggy products and server issues are a death knell.
  • Never stop innovating, especially when deep-pocketed competitors are breathing down your neck.

Myspace (2003-present)

Key stats:

  • Peak users: 250 million+ (2008)
  • Peak valuation: $12 billion (2007)
  • 2020 Users: ~7 million

Does Myspace need an introduction? The site that launched a million garage bands was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon in the mid-2000s. For many young people, Myspace was their first exposure to social media and defined an entire era of Internet culture.

At its peak in 2006, Myspace surpassed Google as the most visited website in the US. Then it all came crashing down. So what happened?

Tech journalist Sarah Lacy offered this scathing postmortem in Business Week:

"Myspace was the rarest of companies in the social media age: one with an overwhelming first-mover advantage and a high growth rate that managed to somehow completely squander its momentum through a combination of hubris, lack of product focus, and mismanagement."

Under News Corp‘s ownership, Myspace failed to innovate its core product even as its UI grew cluttered with ads and promotional content. Users fled in droves to Facebook‘s cleaner, more elegant experience. Even a $20 million redesign in 2010 and a high-profile relaunch with Justin Timberlake failed to stop the bleeding.

Myspace still exists today as a music-focused site, but with an estimated user base of just ~7 million (down from 250 million+ at its peak), it‘s essentially the walking dead.

Lessons learned:

  • First-mover advantage doesn‘t last forever. Aggressively defend your position through continuous innovation.
  • Protect the user experience at all costs. No amount of marketing can overcome a lousy product.
  • Beware the innovator‘s dilemma. What made you successful can also make you vulnerable to disruption.

Google+ (2011-2019)

Key stats:

  • Total users: 395 million at peak (2016), though active users were much lower
  • Peak traffic share: 0.76% of social traffic referrals (2015)

On paper, Google+ seemed destined for success. It had the backing of the most powerful player in tech, a built-in user base of billions and features that in some ways improved on what Facebook offered, like better photo sharing and the concept of Circles to organize friend groups.

But Google+ never found its footing. A common refrain was that the platform felt like a ghost town, with little genuine engagement. Users were confused about its purpose and put off by Google‘s aggressive integration of G+ with other services.

Writing in Slate, tech journalist Farhad Manjoo put it bluntly: "There‘s really no reason to use Google+. Nobody you know is on it, and nobody you know is visiting it, so there isn‘t anything to do there."

Privacy concerns, including multiple data leaks, further damaged Google+‘s already shaky reputation. Low usage made the platform difficult to justify, and Google finally put it out of its misery in 2019.

Lessons learned:

  • A big name is no substitute for a compelling value proposition. Give users a clear reason to engage with your platform.
  • Build genuine communities, not just eyeballs. Artificial growth tactics like forced integration can backfire.
  • Don‘t neglect privacy and security. In the post-Cambridge Analytica era, users are warier than ever about how their data is handled.

Vine (2013-2016)

Key stats:

  • Peak users: 200 million active (2015)
  • Peak daily video loops: 1.5 billion (2016)

For a glorious 3-year stretch in the mid-2010s, Vine was the hottest thing in social media. The 6-second looping video app launched dozens of careers, spawned countless memes and briefly became a part of the cultural lexicon.

But almost as swiftly as it rose, Vine came crashing down. Many of the platform‘s top creators, frustrated by the app‘s content restrictions and lack of monetization options, decamped to YouTube, Instagram and upstart video app Snapchat.

The death blow came from parent company Twitter, which was hemorrhaging cash and desperate to cut costs. Unable to justify Vine‘s reported $10 million monthly burn rate, Twitter unceremoniously shuttered the app in October 2016.

Dom Hofmann, one of Vine‘s co-founders, took to Twitter to eulogize the company and offer a mea culpa: "We shipped something that people loved but we didn‘t evolve the product enough to make it sustainable."

Lessons learned:

  • Nurture your talent. Give creators reasons to invest in your platform for the long haul through monetization, creative tools, and growth opportunities.
  • Adapt or perish. Once-novel formats like short videos are quickly commoditized. Differentiate through features, community, and brand.
  • Have a business model. Investor patience for profitless growth is not infinite (looking at you, Twitter circa 2016).

Other Notable Flops

We could go on, but in the interest of brevity, here‘s a lightning round of some other social networks that didn‘t quite make it:

  • iTunes Ping (2010-2012): Apple‘s attempt at a "social network for music." Handicapped from the start by its restriction to the iTunes ecosystem. Replaced by better integrations with Facebook and Twitter.

  • Eons (2006-2012): A social network for baby boomers aged 50 and up. The age-restricted model severely limited its growth potential. Shuttered after burning through $32 million in funding.

  • Orkut (2004-2014): One of Google‘s numerous failed social experiments pre-Google+. Popular in Brazil and India but never cracked other markets.

  • Peach (2016): A mobile-first "lightweight social network" with a baffling array of features, including "magic words" to summon GIFs and a dedicated button for waving at friends. The initial hype fizzled within weeks.

Dead Social Media Platforms Comparison

Lessons for the Living

So what can today‘s social media marketers learn from this social media boneyard? A few key principles emerge:

  1. Nail the fundamentals. None of the bells and whistles matter if you don‘t get the core user experience right. That means reliable performance, an intuitive UI, engaging content, and robust privacy and security. Every dead platform on our list stumbled on one or more of these points.

  2. Identify your "only we" and lean into it. In a crowded market, it‘s not enough to be just another feed of posts and photos. The platforms that have endured all tapped into something unique, whether it‘s Twitter‘s real-time news or Instagram‘s visual storytelling. Figure out what your platform‘s superpower is and double down on that differentiation.

  3. Build for sustainability from day one. Monetization can‘t be an afterthought. While there‘s certainly a balance to strike between user experience and revenue, the most successful social platforms find ways to create value for all of their stakeholders — users, creators, brands, and investors. Have a clear path to profitability and don‘t be afraid to experiment with new business models.

  4. Don‘t get complacent. Social media moves at warp speed and today‘s market leader can quickly become tomorrow‘s cautionary tale (just ask Myspace). The platforms that survive are relentlessly focused on innovation, whether that‘s new features, emerging technologies, or creative revenue streams. Always assume there‘s a disruptor around the corner coming for your lunch.

It remains to be seen which of today‘s social media giants will stand the test of time and which will join the ranks of the digital departed. But by studying the rise and fall of the platforms that came before, we can glean invaluable insights about how to build social networks that don‘t just capture lightning in a bottle, but that endure.

Because at the end of the day, that‘s really what this is all about: creating digital spaces that forge real human connections, shape culture, and bring a little more humanity to the Internet. The stakes are high and the competition is fierce, but for those who can learn from the past and execute for the future, the rewards are limitless.