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Publication: The Face 2001

All back to school with the website that’s made class reunions the hottest social event of the season


Things you never expected your long-lost schoolmates to be doing:

  1. Getting on with it.
  2. Having kids.
  3. Being nice.
  4. Being normal.
  5. Being scientists working in Silicon Valley, having completed a PhD entitled ’Magneto-optics of Laterally Confined 2-Dimensional Electron Gases'.

It wasn't like destiny had it all worked out in advance for my friend Will Stallard, but to watch, back in 1985, this bright but awkward teenager's performance in the 100m race – he always came last – it was never really likely that he'd go on play for Man Utd or anything.

But read back his entry on school reunion website, ('…went on to study Physics at Imperial College… now living in California and enjoying the sunshine') and then observe the beaming adult beneath the West Coast sky in the picture, and not even 6,000 miles and 16 years can account for the difference between memory and actuality. California, electron gases, Imperial coll… how did *that* happen?

Close to three million people have probably experienced similar I-can’t-believe-it timewarp memory-slap since visiting Friendsreunited, a website which has spent 2001 bending the laws of time to dump the past right on your desktop in ways that would even stump Will Stallard. was a internet start-up that never set out to make money, but has nevertheless made loads servicing Britain with its first retroactive yearbook-cum-scholastic Yellow Pages. No-one expected it to be the runaway success of viral non-marketing that it’s become, but since it went live in July 2000, three million people have logged on - many paying the optional fiver for access to their contemporaries’ email addresses - with carefully-balanced resumés of their post-school life, amping up achievement and playing down shortcomings. Or just taking the piss a lot.

In the last year, several people have got married though FR.CO.UK contact. One man has been reunited with his cat, Mr Paws, kidnapped 13 years ago by a friend. Should you care to, you can log on and discover what schoolfriends of Posh Spice, Sol Campbell, Richard Bacon, Dave Hill from Slade, Scott from 5, Debbie Magee, Jarvis Cocker, The Levellers and Alan Titchmarsh have to say about their ‘famous’ colleagues. You can also find Anna Friel’s innermost reminiscences (‘I remember we were all hooked on Kyle MacLachlan and Twin Peaks at the time, and now I've snogged him on screen!’ to be exact). Recently, attracted the pipe-chomping ire of school unions who demanded the removal of libellous allegations concerning their staff, in a similar controversy that almost did for the net's last must-click destination,

Like ultra-naff London nightclubs, FR.CO.UK it taps into an appetite for short-term nostalgia at a time when the future never seem less sure and the present tuned to satisfying desires instantaneously, but gravely lacking in substance. On one day in November alone, attracted 6.9million hits. When it comes to surfing the Zeitgeist, crashed over the British shoreline like an irresistible hang-ten radical wave freak of lunch-hour net distraction, 'dude'.

Everything about screams ‘’ If the faded signages of expired e-commerce are the net’s high street, and the porn world its back-alleys, then FRC is its curtain-twitching suburbia, a zone which runs on curiosity, one-upmanship and gossip. Fittingly, began in High Barnet, where the Northern line peters out of London into the Hertfordshire and 'urban' becomes ‘leafy’ in a matter of yards. Steve and Julie Pankhurst’s detached house doesn’t look much like the thrusting hub of net enterprise, neither do these ultra-normal married thirtysomethings and full-time web-grandees ride microscooters.

Instead, they usher you in, put the kettle on and mooch upstairs to where a pair of laptops busily manage Britain’s most popular website from among Steve’s record collection in the spare room.

When they met, Julie and Steve were database programmers. While Julie was pregnant, she began wondering what her friends from Primary school were doing: this is a school, bear in mind that’s ‘literally 100 yards up there road. I’m still in Barnet,‘ Julie trills. ’Sad!’

Then they had a brilliant idea: copy American school reunion site ‘We’d come across it and thought, ‘Ah, it’s been done.’ So We thought, ‘we should, do this’.’

So they did it. Steve wrote the programme in a fortnight. Slowly, people joined up and was soon the site began attracting around 20,000 hits per day. Then, around May 2001, Steve explains, ‘it went vooom! It hit a point when anybody going to it would recognise a name - that was the key. Before you might have gone there and not seen anything and then gone away.‘

Consequently became a business instead of a hobby. ‘This was during the boom. Millions were being put into crap ideas. Our approach was to spend no money. We didn’t know whether people would pay for it. We since found out they would…’

The site is growing beyond its current 25-35-year-old demographic. When you consider that its content is provided by users and that school-leavers are a renewable resource AND that they intend to expand and franchise the site, by now, you’ll probably be doing the math: £5 X loads of subscribers - low overheads (hosting, advertising, telephone support) = £££s for Steve and Julie.!

‘We aren’t not millionaires,’ grins Steve. ‘I know what percentage of subscribers have paid. But I don’t tell anyone.’

Its front-end may be as lavishly-appointed and corporate as the average chippy, (its only graphic picture is a pic of Steve’s mum and dad), but is a the triumph of localised interest operating on a global scale, of people-applied computing over marketing-driven driven corporate greed. Still, its appeal lies deeper than its nominal ‘reuniting’ function. It’s a crucial feature of the site is that volunteering personal info is optional, not obligatory. Reflected in the ratio of paying to non-paying subscribers may well be the number of users in search of genuine contact and news of old friends, and those just wanting the voyeuristic frisson available in the combination of mundane and bizarre that hosts. Because forget Hollyoaks: no truer depiction exists of young British adulthood no than For every ‘now living in Sunderland with husband Jim, working as a waste management officer. Pregnant… very happy!’ there’s a ‘Hi! Finished my sentence for armed robbery, made a new life in upholstery with my fifth wife, Gertrude, operated briefly for Mossad, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for my work on botulism. Still in touch with Gizmo, Lance and Bender!!!’

Like the site’s Osama Bin Laden and Prince Wills entries, that was made up. But you get the picture.

It’s perhaps an upshot of the Faustian pact we’ve struck with comfy nostalgia that we’re now as contactable to our past through the net as we are with the present. With, you get the history belling up for a pint. And to be frank, most people are saying ‘cheers!’

‘There have been loads of reunions,’ says Steve, so lauded for his invention he’s now regularly invited to reunions of schools he never even went to. ‘Thousands. Everyone I know has been to a reunion.’

‘Apart from me,’ tuts Julie. ‘And I set the site up.’

WARNING: the value of friendships from the past can go up as well as down. Encountering friends in person is, of course, an entirely different proposition to doing so online. Currently, school reunions may well be the hottest engagement of winter social circuit, but Britain's mass encounter with it school days is exacting a considerable toll on its sanity.

On a Thursday night in South London, Greenwich’s Time bar is hosting the first reunion of Bexley Technical College, a single-sex school several miles away. Stroll up the stairs, and there’s a buffet, a man playing piano, DJ on his way over, several knots of geezers with lager and shirts, a pin-the-name on-the-teacher photo gallery in the corner, and, by 9.30pm, a roomful of women in their mid-twenties with facial expressions that registering mild embarrassment at the same time as raging curiosity as they appraise the older, discernibly saggier, though probably happier incarnation of their youth.

It’s an impressive turnout – of one class, 28 of 30 are here. To some, it’s torture; to others, a joy. To most, however, it’s still an excellent opportunity for a piss-up.

Vivian, a bank worker, ‘just came tonight to see how everyone looks,’ she says, scrutinising roughly 150 women scrutinising each other. ’It’s a really weird feeling!’

‘I’ve had emails from people I haven’t seen for ten years,’ adds her mate Zoe, who works for the police. ‘It’s really great to go on the website because you don’t have to see them.’

In the event that 'friends' actually get round to doing any 'reuniting', they make extremely cautious entreaties to one another. Conversations are ptractically couched UN-level diplomacy, but you can almost see the mental subtitling that runs underneath, conversations typically commencing thus:

'Hi... er! [I forgot your name!] Great to see you! [I haven't missed you at all!]. Your look well [you've put on weight]… Oh, I never see them anymore [who?]… I'd love to meet you for a drink [my husband/wife/partner/mother/parole officer will be furious]' etc.

Largely, the Tex girls have done well for themselves, and though few people are doing what they expected to do as ‘grown ups’ (as if…), there’s also the feeling that it doesn’t really matter; that if this is what all the hopes, memories and expectations recorded on have come to, then, really, that’s okay.

However, two principal topics of conversation emerge: firstly, an update of one’s position on the playground’s eternal geek-to-cool index. ‘I was never cool at school,’ Jo Gibbs, 28, agonises, as of the college’s cool faction are about to pile over for an impromptu teasing. ‘I do look at the website and you do compare yourself to what everybody else is doing. I’m doing completely worse! Everybody seems to be completely happy doing what they’re doing, settled and stuff. there always seem to be someone cooler than you are in life.’

Sadly, yes. Bt Jo’s self-esteem issues notwithstanding, there’s a more serious topic afoot. To wit: snogging.

‘We’ve been sending each other photos,’ beams Toni, 28, from Welling, who’s hoping to see a boy she used to play kiss-chase with at school. ‘He’s got his own landscape gardening business now!’

Although ‘friendsreunited,’ doesn’t have so snappy a ring to it, the site and evenings like these are probably doing more to realise long-held affections, lusts and fantasies than they’re given credit for. The unspoken truth is that like some kind of informal late-developer Dating Agency, it can act for those who WLTM the person they never got round to snogging in fifth form. Which is, obviously, both good, and bad news.

‘My husband has been emailed by his first real, proper girlfriend,’ notes mother-of-four Nadine. ‘It was okay for me. He also got an email from some shag form Ibiza. I thought, “oh”.’

‘Personally,’ observes Helen 28, ‘I have theory that friendsreunited could end a few marriages. The potential is there. Definitely.’

Undoubtedly, it takes psychic preparation to endure as bittersweet an ordeal as this. But the extreme ambivalence with which arrived eventually disappears into the bottom of a glass, the evening mutates into an 18-30 disco with people you’ve known for ages to, and the past suddenly seems like a fun place to be. By 11.30, one girls flings her arms around someone she’s ignored on the commuter train platform for years. Big news: the school’s coolest girl is observed to be ’quite normal’. This may not be closure on all the emotions that have plugged time and festered since those present left school exactly, but there exudes a general atmosphere of ‘phew…’

How much love is there in his room right now? Quite a lot, actually - apart from in this corner, where Tanya and Jane, stuck to the bar like chewing gum as midnight approaches and now even less inclined towards any reuniting than when they arrived.

‘I don’t like being false,’ sulks Tanya, all petulant. ‘Going to hug someone you hated at school. It’s wrong innit?  I know everyone who was bitchy to me and I’m not going to speak to them.‘

‘I’m gutted that people I wanted to bitch off aren’t here tonight,’ Jane tersely adds. ‘I would really loved to have gone for them. They’re only here to see how much weigh people have put on and how many wrinkles they got.

Sounds terrible! Why did you come?

‘Same reason!’

Scan the bar at 11.30pm and as 150 or so Bexley Tech alumni eventually divest themselves of the extreme ambivalence they carried in tonight like an extra handbag, the Time Bar mutates into something approaching an 18-30 disco. One girl flings her arms around someone she’s ignored on the commuter train platform for years. Whether or not it will ever happen again, half the gathered resolve  to see each other again very soon. Latest news: the school’s ‘coolest girl’ is observed to be ‘quite normal’. Viewed from a certain angle – through the bottom of a glass, possibly – the past suddenly seem like a fun place to be. There might not exactly be closure on all the emotions that have bubbled away since those present left school, but a collective feeling of ‘phew’ is being exuded nonetheless.

The past: You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a nice place to visit. Make sure you leave your baggage behind if you do

© Kevin Braddock 2001

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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