Looking back from our contemporary perspective, the Firefly site—which launched in October of 1995—seems like a kind of a time-machine, anticipating a whole set of advances that would become mainstream more than a decade later. “Recommendations were a big part of it, but in order to support recommendations, we started doing profile pages, and then messaging, then groups. And so we inadvertently built this social network,” Sharpandra recalls. Thanks to those profile pages, you weren’t just using the service to discover new bands to follow; you were using it to find interesting like-minded people, and get into conversations with them. Online communities had existed before Firefly of course: there were bulletin boards like The Well in the 1980s, and chat rooms at . But Firefly was one of the first—if not the very first—to map connections between people using some kind of structured database that was built on personal information: in their case, information about your taste in music or books or movies.
“And so we inadvertently built this social network“
Soon the Firefly team began to see evidence of a phenomenon that would become commonplace in the next decade: virtual connections leading to real-word relationships. “We had all these marriages that came out of Firefly actually,” Maes says, “because people were so excited to find other people that were into the same obscure stuff.
”Firefly never really took off as a business, in large part because the simply didn’t exist in the late 90s. But even in those early days, the potential for a new, personalized model of advertising was visible. A profile of the company in BusinessWeek noted: “Marketers say the software agents developed by Firefly could move them closer to their Holy Grail by providing a way to predict what customers are likely to want next –and the means to reach them with a customized pitch that could cost a tenth of more traditional direct-marketing programs.” Firefly struck licensing deals with Barnes and Noble, Yahoo, and Rolling Stone, while adding new social features to the core Firefly.com site. Maes’s visionary descriptions of future “intelligent agents” built on collaborative filtering were published in Wired. Magazines like Time and Newsweek put her on their lists of the most influential “cyber-elite.” (She even found her way into People Magazines’s “50 Most Beautiful People” issue in 1997, undoubtedly a first for a MIT computer scientist.)
Many Americans of a certain vintage had their first exposure to networked life through America Online, but for the younger readers out there (and those from outside the US), it may require a brief introduction. AOL was, at least initially, a closed network that you joined for a monthly fee, which you accessed through special phone numbers that would connect directly with their servers. Once connected, you could access chat rooms, news and information services, and email. Its signature audio feature — a digitized voice cheerily announcing, “You’ve got mail!” — inspired the rom-com classic by the same name. Eventually, AOL opened up a portal to the wider Internet and for a while, it was right up there with Yahoo, Netscape, and Amazon as one of the brightest stars of the original dot.com boom.
Pattie Maes’ profile in “Red Herring” magazine.
Courtesy of Pattie Maes