Classmates CEO Celebrates 20 Year Mark, Examines Evolution of Social Media

By Sonja Hegman Comment


Nostalgia. You know you love it. And when you start to hit middle age, sometimes, you crave it, and the need to look back can only grow as you age.

Some like to look back to see how far they’ve come. Others look back and think, “What happened?” And still others wonder what happened to The One That Got Away. Whatever side you’re on, remembering the past is a fun adventure and Classmates has been helping people look back at their former selves for the last 20 years.

Abani Heller, Classmates’ CEO, talked with SocialTimes about how the site has grown with social media over the past two decades:

Twenty years marks a significant achievement and a time for nostalgia here at Classmates. By our definition social media is 20 years old, but for us, it feels a bit like coming out of adolescence. We’re a teenager, but not quite an adult.

Dubbing itself “the first social network,” Classmates started in Seattle in 1995 as a way for high school alumni to connect with one another. And, if you’re at least 35, you know it’s the probably first social network you signed up for, well, that or Friendster.

Thinking back to 1995, the Internet was quite new, not many people had connections in their homes, and, if they did, it ran through the phone line.

Heller explained two main trends his company has noticed in its 20-year-old life: fragmentation of the social media industry and social becoming less social. He elaborated:

You see many different flavors of social networking these days that have very specific use cases. Classmates is obviously for reconnecting with your high school class, but you see others specifically focused on photo content, news content, etc. It’s been an interesting trend to see that there is room for specific niches to survive within the industry.

The second, and maybe more troubling trend, he said, is that social has become less social in its 20 year existence:

The industry right now is dealing with how anti-social is social. To what extent should social be about connecting with individuals and not presenting a picture of yourself for virtual consumption by everyone else in the world?

Of course it’s virtual and of course it’s online, but Heller noted, “Classmates has always been focused on real connections and on actually connecting you with people for social experiences. Most obviously your high school reunion.” And, quite often, the company receives stories about reconnections through the site.

In a recent poll of Classmates members, “rekindling an old flame” was ranked as one of the top reasons to attend a high school reunion, and nearly 70 percent of members surveyed indicated they would be open to a reinvigorating a romantic relationship from high school if they were single.


From the Classmates Winter 2002 magazine.

What’s coming in the future? Heller said Classmates is “always thinking mobile-first,” but has not yet built a dedicated app. Heller notes that it’s challenging to re-create the very nostalgic experience of holding a physical yearbook in hand and flipping through the pages. And, while the company also doesn’t have an app, Heller said they will create apps as it makes sense.

For example, their CelebHigh app is entertaining because everyone who’s famous also has a yearbook photo just like regular people:

You sit and you turn the pages of the yearbook for an hour. How can we create that same experience online? That’s a very hard experience to put on a very small smart phone, but that’s where our energy is right now. How do we create that emotional experience on a mobile device?

In the next 5 years, Heller said the push will be to move the industry in the direction of real connection. Classmates will continue to focus on high school reunions, yearbooks and responsive experiences that lead to reconnections for high school classes.

Other milestones from Classmates’ 20-year history include:

  •         More than 240,000 high schools represented;
  •         More than 70 million current members;
  •         More than 350,000 reunions planned, including more than 5 million members invited to a reunion this year;
  •         More than 58 million photos shared; and
  •         More than 300,000 digitized yearbooks accessible online with the oldest yearbook on Classmates: Central High School, Manchester, NH Class of 1885.


Readers: Are you on Classmates?