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Marc Canter: My Life As a Social Network

Macromedia co-founder and BYTE video columnist Marc Canter knows social networks -- because he was there first.

Social networking has grown over the past 15 years from a nascent glimmer in some software entrepreneur's eye to a full-blown industry.

Behemoth megabattles now define the landscape, but along the way we've seen tremendous blunders, stupid strategic direction and phenomenally shortsighted decisions -- they've come back to haunt even the so-called smartest media execs.

My own experience in social software started back in 1996 when my team and I built an operating system for what we then called "location based entertainment." The idea was that patrons would go to a cyber-themed restaurant and log into their table by having a video grab of their faces added to the screen.

The patrons would then order food and drinks, play games, browse the Web, play music and video and in general interact with others at their table and around the restaurant -- or around the world.


I made sure that this technology broke any potential patents in the future by creating prior art around the notion of "human face in a software interface." No one can ever patent that unless they were doing it before 1996. We also set the precedent for "multimedia human faces designating being logged into one machine." We called it the MediaBar.


We parlayed that work on the MediaBar into a gig in Trieste, Italy, where we started to build a "Digital City." That city architecture imagined clubs which had people logged in remotely as a wall of faces. Jump forward to 2001 and we did an interface for AOL that had folks sitting around and watching TV together -- virtually.


Then in 2002 we came up with a design called the "Community Commons." This would be called a social network nowadays, but we didn't know what to call it back then. I showed this design to Mark Pincus and he immediately hired me for a project called "Tribe.net".


I was a member of Ryze -- which was actually a predecessor to Friendster. Pincus had just invested in Friendster, and so he wanted to do something similar That became Tribe.net. Paul Martino and I came up with the notion of 'Tribes,' which today has evolved into what Google's Google+ calls Groups.

During 2003 I also designed something called 1UP.com, built a site called aSmallWorld.com, and was involved in a number of other social networks, including Red Herring founder Tony Perkin's Always-on and Going-on networks.

I had a run-in with Jon Abrams--watch the video above to find out more on that. And so it was time to build my own platform, which we called the "PeopleAggregator," a white-labeled platform we offered in pen source form, or software as a service.

I became an early active member of Orkut and burned out on social networking by the time MySpace came along Tribe and MySpace, by the way, launched at about the same time.

Oh -- did I forget to tell you that we tried to help Cyworld come to the U.S. and that we designed systems for EMI and Conde Nast which never were created? Or AIMpages? And did I tell you about the 27 systems we built for clients, including the U.S. Army ROTC, Bell Canada, Nvidia, RadioOne, Rafat Ali, TheTimes of India, Mondadori and countless others? They all either failed or never shipped.

The white-labeled social networking game--which at one point had 50 players!--sure was fun. While it lasted.

So I was delighted when Facebook opened up its platform. And now I'm delighted to see Google+ give Facebook a run for its money. What a spectator sport.

Here from the sidelines after experiencing all this first-hand. I can tell you for sure this is far from over.

What if Marc Canter back in 2001 had called this Facebook instead of Face Wall?


Marc Canter is a senior contributor at BYTE. A co-founder of Macromedia and the many and various social networks he mentions in his video and text above, he now lives in Cleveland. Email him at Marc.Canter@BYTE.com.

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