April 16, 2008
The name of the game for social-networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook is to draw as many users as possible into the fold. Typically that's done by creating a community and features so irresistible that people feel they just have to join.
Then there are the tactics employed by Reunion.com, a Los Angeles-based site with 36 million registered members.
West L.A. resident Elaine Schmidt experienced Reunion.com's aggressive marketing for herself when she received an e-mail the other day that appeared to be from a longtime acquaintance.
It said: "Hi, I looked for you on Reunion.com, the largest people search service -- but you weren't there." The e-mail instructed her to click on a link to see who else has been searching for her.
Curious to see if her acquaintance had left a message, Schmidt, 44, clicked on the link and found herself at Reunion.com's site, where she was prompted to register so she could see who'd been searching for her.
As part of the process, she submitted her name, gender, e-mail address, birth date and ZIP Code.
Then Schmidt came to a page saying that "we'll find your friends and family who are already members and also automatically invite any nonmembers to join (it's free!)." It instructed her to enter the password for her Yahoo e-mail account.
"I thought I was just signing up to read my friend's message," Schmidt said. "At no time did I think I was authorizing them to access my online address book."
Within minutes, though, she started getting e-mails from friends and colleagues asking why she was searching for them on Reunion.com.
As the day progressed, Schmidt realized that every one of the roughly 250 personal and professional contacts in her online address book had received an e-mail, ostensibly from her, saying that she was searching for them and encouraging them to join her at Reunion.com.
"I had to send an e-mail to everyone apologizing for what happened," she said.
Size counts when it comes to social-networking sites. The more members they have, the more they can charge advertisers and the more clout they have with business partners. MySpace boasts 110 million members worldwide. Facebook claims 70 million active users.
Jeffrey Tinsley, Reunion.com's chief executive, said the privately held company, which was founded in 2002, registers about 1 million new members every month. This is due in no small part to the millions of e-mails sent out monthly to those in each new member's address book.
"We're not doing anything different from any other social-networking site," Tinsley said.
Both MySpace and Facebook also prompt new users to reach out to the people in their e-mail address books. But the two services allow members to decide for themselves who will receive invitations to join, as opposed to Reunion.com's automatic blitzing of everyone.
No less important, the e-mailed invitations are just that -- invitations. For example, the e-mail from Facebook says: "I set up a Facebook profile with my pictures, videos and events and I want to add you as a friend so you can see it. First, you need to join Facebook! Once you join, you can also create your own profile."
That's a good deal more straightforward than an e-mail saying that so-and-so is searching for you.
In Schmidt's case, the e-mail that prompted her to open her address book to the company appeared to come from Vera Eck, a Santa Monica psychotherapist whom Schmidt has known for a while.
"I wasn't searching for her," Eck told me.
Just an hour or so before Schmidt received her e-mail, Eck, 46, said she received a message from what appeared to be the father of one of the kids in her son's Cub Scout pack. Curious to know why he was searching for her, she registered at Reunion.com to see if her acquaintance had left a message.
Eck provided access to her Gmail address book as part of the registration process. And so it goes.
Not only does Reunion.com's automatic message mislead e-mail recipients by saying that someone known to them is searching for them, it misrepresents the intentions of new members by giving the impression that they're actively seeking to communicate with the people in their address books.
Neither Schmidt nor Eck searched for a single person on Reunion.com.
Tinsley, the company's CEO, said that providing access to e-mail accounts is optional during the registration process. But many people may overlook the small link in the top right-hand corner of the page that says this.
Tinsley described the sending of e-mails to everyone in a person's address book as a "bulk search" for other Reunion.com members. But when pressed, he acknowledged that users aren't in fact searching for anyone when they agree to invite others to join.
"We could probably be a bit more clear there," Tinsley said.
After we spoke, he tweaked the language on the site to say that Reunion.com will "also let anyone who isn't a member know that you looked for them, and invite them to join."
I pointed out that this still indicates a search is being performed when that's not really the case.
Tinsley replied that new members are performing "a multiname search using their address book."
Reunion.com may be a great resource for finding long-lost friends and relations -- I have no idea. To run a search, you have to register. To register, you have to hand over personal info and, if you're not careful, access to your entire address book.
If you want to use the feature that the company pitches in its e-mails -- the ability to see who's been searching for you -- you have to pay $36 for three months or $60 for a year of full access.
Tinsley said about 80% of Reunion.com's revenue comes from paid subscriptions. The company thus has a clear incentive to lure as many people to the site as possible.
"There's a business benefit," Tinsley said. "We want more people connected, just as MySpace and Facebook do. But we're not trying to mislead anyone."
All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
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