Tribe.net: Going the way of Friendster?

Started back in 2003, San Francisco–based Tribe.net was a social network for proud freaks. With a user base of more than half a million that once rivaled MySpace, Tribe acquired a reputation for welcoming artsy, alternative communities, especially here in the Bay Area. These days, however, the site that once proudly counted leather daddies, psytrance DJs, and Burning Man fans among its members has fallen on hard times.

After two CEO changes in the last five years, the site saw considerable downtime this summer — an inconvenience that frustrated members, to say the least. Then Darren Mckeeman, one of only two full-time Tribe employees, handed in his resignation. That left users worrying whether their freak haven might be shut down forever.

They aren't willing to go down without a fight, though — or at least a few good complaints. The personal blog of Mark Pincus, Tribe.net's founder and owner, is packed with comments like this one: "Keep Tribe up! ... Do it, because you're a douchebag if you don't, and a hero if you do." Try to reach someone at Tribe for comment and it begins to feel like the site might indeed be shutting down. E-mails bounce back, and the phone has been disconnected.

Eventually we were able to track down Pincus. These days his main project is his social game company, Zynga, but he still calls the shots for Tribe. From his office in Potrero Hill, he explained Tribe's business history, which has become the stuff of rumors for its users: two rounds of capital investment, three CEOs, and a period of bankruptcy. Since 2003, the site team has gone from 30 people to five to two and now one.

Despite the fear many have that blogs they've created or photos they've uploaded may be lost, Pincus insists that Tribe isn't going anywhere anytime soon, despite the recent downtime. "I feel a commitment to the community of people who have made the decision to post themselves on Tribe," he says. "We've kept Tribe going not because we believed it would turn into a phenomenal business success like Bebo or Facebook, but because I think it serves a really valuable role for the community."

Even if Pincus isn't trying to compete with Facebook — Zynga makes the majority of its games for that site — his Tribe users are leaving for Facebook and other social networking giants all the same. Consider the Haight-Ashbury resident who recently posted he was moving to a more reliable site and giving up on the freak show forever.

The trouble with quoting that post verbatim: As of this writing, Tribe is down.

 
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