Friendstr: UI Case Study
I started using Friendster a year or so ago. It was instantly addictive: at one point it was almost a game of one-upmanship to see who could have the biggest friends list and who could get linked (via a friend of a friend) to some celebrity or other. From a practical point of view, it had good basic features like messaging, message boards and a sort of tag-based search function.
In 2004 Friendster got the first of several additions and revamps to deal with its booming popularity. The underpinnings moved to a faster PHP-based dynamic system, and new features were added such as groups, horoscopes, job searches, chat functions, and photo albums. Jumping on the blogging bandwagon, Friendster brokered a deal with Six Apart to incorporate TypePad-powered weblogs into their service.
The interface design, on the other hand, was, and is, pretty haphazard. There were plenty of boxes-within-boxes with outlines and gutters, perfect examples of Edward Tufte's visual rule that 1+1=3, because the eye perceives the space between boxes as an object as well. The links and buttons are uniformly tiny. Aesthetically, it's less grey-on-grey than it used to be, but it's no beauty, either - it certainly doesn't match up to the design, and promise, of the splash page. At the time, it was a 1.0, we were forgiving, and the novelty and value from the service outweighed its shortcomings.
But a long time has passed since then. How does Friendster measure up today?
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Ben + Pat
Benita's father, Benedict Gronek, died at the end of June after a long struggle with cancer. He'd been a long-time chain smoker, but was paradoxically strong and healthy most of the time - he'd bike everywhere on an old one-speed, up hills, long distances. A sometimes painter, Beat aficionado and Charles Bukowski devotee, Ben lived most of his early life in Chicago's Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods, which were until recently very ethnic, low-rent, bohemian areas. His family were Polish immigrants; his parents divorced early on and his mother remarried. His biological father wasn't very involved in his upbringing; he's still alive, in his 90s, in Florida somewhere.
I only met Ben a handful of times; he was weathered, with a big Stalinist moustache (as Eddie Izzard would put it). He had a dark, sarcastic sense of humour and while he lived a bohemian life, he had high standards and could be harshly critical of people or things he didn't approve of. Parenthood never really suited him, to put it mildly, and his roller-coaster marriage to Benita's mom broke up after only a few years.
With few to no living relatives in town, we opted for a simple cremation and no service; we took his ashes down from Madison, WI to the cemetery in the Chicago suburbs where his mother and stepfather are buried, and planted a flower. Nothing can prepare you for receiving someone's ashes; it's hard to reconcile your memories of a person, their whole life, everything they were and did, with the knowledge that they are somehow transmogrified into the contents of an incongruously heavy black box.
Benita's mother Patricia died almost 11 months earlier, to the day. She was almost completely the opposite of Ben: she was Southern, friendly, cheerful and uncomplicated, though under the surface, she struggled with various personal demons. She had recently converted to Catholicism and worked in a parochial school. She had a great affection for the late, sainted Princess Diana, and read a lot of celebrity magazines; I suppose she still hoped her life would turn out like a happy Hollywood fairy-story. She lived in Madison but was laid to rest in her family plot back in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
In writing this I only realize how little I really know about these people, beyond the stories Benita has told me; it wasn't a happy home to grow up in by any means. I feel eternally lucky to have two very stable, loving, supporting and relatively happily married parents. They weren't perfect parents, but they always encouraged my brother and I to explore, to learn, to try things and ultimately, to do what made us the most happy.