In the same week it was announced that the cast of Friends would be at least partially reuniting for television, the website Friends Reunited announced that it would be closing. This prompted one of two reactions among that generation of people for whom Friends Reunited blazed a trail in revealing the myriad pleasures of online activity (in other words, the over-35s): a keen sense of nostalgia for the site that first realised the potential in using the internet not merely for email (or porn) but to find former friends and rekindle old flames; and a certain surprise that the website had still been limping on at all in an arena long since reimagined by younger bucks with more appealing alternatives.
In an emotional email sent yesterday by its founder, Steve Pankhurst, to those who had forgotten they ever had an account, he wrote: “In the summer of 2000, we launched Friends Reunited as a method for people to find their old friends from their school days. The internet was in its infancy and the world was a very different place. Social networking was not even a term anyone used, but Friends Reunited grew very quickly to become one of the largest sites in the UK.”
It did. At its peak, it boasted 23 million users. In a newly technological era where no one, not even JR Hartley, used the phone book anymore, it took full advantage of the internet's ability to shrink the world until it was within everyone's grasp, and for a few years it managed, organised and compartmentalised our collective memory. Suddenly, all of us were revisiting old pals, if not to reconnect then to snoop. Some of us even chose to contact former adversaries.
“Sad to hear Friends Reunited is shutting,” Jon Ronson tweeted on Monday in response to the news. “I've happy memories of finding the boy who threw me in a lake and telling him I'm now a best-selling author.”
Its website was basic and clunky, but in the first few years of the 21st century all websites were basic and clunky. Its appeal was all-consuming, often dangerously so: more than once was it cited in divorce cases. In 2005, Pankhurst sold the site to ITV for £175m, but ITV was late in arriving to a party at which most of the guests were already departing for a better soiree elsewhere down the information superhighway. The TV channel cut its losses four years later, and sold the site to DC Thomson for £25m.
For many of us, it had been some time since we had even thought of it, much less revisited it. There were by now other ways to “deja-date”, and not all of them were via Tinder.
“Not long ago, I was approached by the [new] Friends Reunited owners to see if I wanted to take it back and try some new projects with it,” Steve Pankhurst wrote in his email. “[But] for the site to continue it needs a complete rewrite and this is just not viable. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that we have decided to close the service down.”
But Pankhurst, still richer than the average lottery winner, is now attempting what some would call a bold move, others reckless: a kind of Friends Reunited 2.0. It's called Liife, which reads like a typo but isn't. Liife.com is, he says, “all about capturing key moments in your life – past and present. And then sharing them with just the important people who actually took part in those moments”.
Which is sort of what Instagram and Facebook already do anyway. Lightning rarely strikes twice, but let's not overlook that initial contribution of his. Just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, we will always have the treasured memory of that once new-fangled thing called a website in which we first discovered that old friends hadn't forgotten us after all, just as we hadn't forgotten them.