Steve and Julie Pankhurst: Workers of the world, reunite

Reuniting friends from their bedroom
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Workers of the world reunite! You have nothing to lose but your dignity. Another internet memory site has just been launched by Friends Reunited, the school website that is one of the biggest online success stories this country has seen.

The latest brainchild of Steve and Julie Pankhurst, the people behind Friends, is Workplace Reunited, an enormous endeavour featuring 400,000 employers. After just a week up and running, people are logging on in their droves, searching for former colleagues responsible for all those embarrassing Christmas party faux pas, the promotions and the sackings.

"It's a natural progression for us," said Steve Pankhurst, a computer software engineer who runs the site from his north London semi. "And for people like me, it's more interesting. To be honest, I'm not so bothered about the people I knew at school. I'm keener to know what happened to workmates I've lost touch with."

Fortunately for Steve and Julie, millions of people are interested in what happened to former school chums. A year after its launch, Friends Reunited attracts millions of hits a day, and nearly five million people have now become members.

The idea is simple. You click on to www.friendsreunited.co.uk, register for free, locate your school and look up names you had all but forgotten. Then if you want to e-mail them, you pay a flat rate £5 membership fee to have your messages passed on.

The brief self-penned entriesreveal just how uneventful – and similar – most people's lives are. Most can be easily parodied along these lines: "After three years studying maths, I've been working in banking ever since. Married to Julie, with three boys. Now play golf (!!!) every Saturday, but I've still got all the Springsteen albums. Oh, and I still can't resist Mars Bars. Love to hear from anyone out there who remembers me. Whatever happened to Dave S, Fudge and Dingo?"

And yet, it makes fascinating reading for anybody remotely curious about people's lives. "We had no idea how much appetite there would be for it. We had underestimated people's interest in the past. People are nosey. They just can't help being interested in what people get up to," said Mr Pankhurst.

The idea for the site was Julie's. When she became pregnant, she wondered how many of her school friends had had children. She tried to find out via the internet, but discovered little to help her, so the couple decided to set up their own website dedicated to school friends. That was in October 2000 when they thought it would be little more than a diversion, an amusing hobby...

Today 45,000 schools are listed on the site, from tiny primaries to vast comprehensives and public schools. Research has shown that men and women in equal numbers access the site, as do pupils of state and private schools. Users tend to be affluent, inevitably computer literate, and well-educated. While the majority are in their 30s, the oldest e-mailers are in their 90s.

"In your 20s you are looking ahead, and still in touch with quite a few school friends. But by the time you are in your 30s your life has moved on, you might have settled down and lost touch with people. Or maybe you are getting nostalgic for the past because life seems more complicated," Mr Pankhurst said.

Friends Reunited has had its problems. There have been plenty of bogus entries, particularly in the lists of well-known schools. "We had a lot of fake entries for Eton, and while some were funny, others were nasty," said Mr Pankhurst. "We have to rely on people reporting fakes, and we then delete them."

Another problem is "spamming'" when companies send unwanted e-mails offering products and services. "If someone is inundating others, we'll block them."

The biggest controversy emerged in the autumn when the National Union of Teachers complained that the site was being used to make false allegations against teachers, and threatened to take legal action. Mr Pankhurst says it now attempts to monitor all the entries on the "memory boards", where people write up accounts of their school days. He says he is confident that Friends can vet attacks on individuals, but his more cautious approach to Workplace Reunited is telling. There will be no memory boards.

Until now, Friends Reunited has remained a cottage industry. The two continue to run it from a bedroom of their home; the workforce includes friends and neighbours. So far the couple has decided to keep the company which some commentators believe could be worth £20m. But commercialism is creeping in: there are plans for a television tie-in, and the Pankhursts have joined up with the makers of Rolo to offer Valentine e-mails. "Would I sell it? I've no plans too, but then, maybe it's a question of getting the right offer," said Mr Pankhurst. "It started with a simple idea. But then the very best ideas are often the most simple."

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