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Those two businessmen, Raymond Spanjar and Floris Rost van Tonningen, have built a successful company with their hugely popular social networking site Hyves.nl. “But this is only the beginning”, says Spanjar.
After the first internet bubble burst in 2001, Raymond and Floris sold their business website to concentrate on a new internet phenomenon – social networking. Websites were offering people the chance to create lists of people they knew and allowing them to exchange contact details. “We were using new American networking sites, but for some reason they didn’t catch on in the Netherlands”, Raymond Spanjar told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. “ We were inviting our friends but nobody joined. So we decided to take this idea and adapt it to the Dutch market and see if we could get it going here”.
The first internet social networks were focused at building a network of contacts, but that was all – there wasn’t much you could then do with your network. Spanjar and Rost van Tonningen felt that social networking should not be a goal in itself. “We used the network structure for other means as well, like messaging and photo sharing, and that proved to be very successful”. Later, other features were added to the network, such as blogging, a market place for services and products and creating communities for people with shared interests.
This was in 2004, at a time when the internet was still very much a matter of one way traffic: you could read, hear and see many things on the web as a visitor, but there was very little you could add yourself. That all changed with the rise of blogging, youTube and social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Hyves – websites built and filled by the internet users themselves.
“The main purpose of our site is that you can stay in touch with people you know”, says Raymond. “Our research has proven that people who are very active on Hyves have a better relationship with their friends and see them more often, not only online but also offline”.
Social networking sites became hugely popular in the second half of the decade, with tens of millions of people worldwide signing up for Facebook, MySpace, Friendster or Hyves. In the Netherlands, over 9 million people – more than half of the population – use Hyves. It also changed the way we approach the internet, says Spanjar.
“People have opened up on the net. The identity of people used to be very difficult to trace. Everybody knows the stories of people chatting with a 20-year old girl who in the end turns out to be a 60-year old guy. In social networking, most people use their own identity. Now it’s possible to establish someone’s real identity and to make real contact”.
But not everyone thinks Hyves or other social networking sites are a good thing. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands said in this year’s Christmas message that virtual communication “divided people rather than bringing them closer together”. This led to angry reactions from the internet community, including Spanjar. He offered the Queen an account of her own so she can enjoy Hyves herself. “She could then report her experiences of the results”, he adds.
People do connect with each other in real life through Hyves, he says. “It ‘s much easier to connect or reconnect with someone you barely know, or someone you’ve just met. Many real friendships have been established this way. Without social networks, these people would not have been able to do this”.
But what about the next decade? What will the internet – or social networks – look like by 2019? Spanjar doesn’t own a crystal ball, but his prediction is clear: “In ten years time, when we look back, we’ll realise that, really, the impact of social networks was still relatively very small compared to the impact it will have by then. Mobile technology will change the use of internet dramatically. It will provide a virtual layer onto our physical reality that will be something completely different compared to today’s computer-based internet”.
“We’ll see a merger of the real world and the virtual world, really. I think what we know now is only the beginning”.
With 9,593,352 members, it looks like Raymond Spanjar and Floris Rost van Tonningen will be able to live their 21st century internet dreams for quite some time.
Johan van Slooten
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