friendster-logoKuala Lumpur-based MOL, a payment systems seller known much better in Asia than in America, announced today its acquisition of Friendster, an early-adopter social network founded in 2002 in Mountain View. The Financial Times guesstimates the sale price at $100 million. MOL’s announcement says it will retain Friendster’s office but doesn’t comment on the fate of the company’s estimated 20-70 employees. Neither company has replied to press queries yet.

MOL, in a prepared statement, described its plans for Friendster as, “The operations of MOL and Friendster will be combined to create Asia’s largest end-to-end content, distribution and commerce network, pairing MOL’s offline retail channel partners and payment platform with Friendster’s large online footprint, social network and user community in Asia.” In short, MOL hopes to sell stuff through Friendster.

Remember Friendster? It was like Facebook, if Facebook were down all the time.

Yet, back in 2004, Friendster was the hottest of early-mover social networks. It was bigger — both in size and in cultural impact — than its contemporary LinkedIn. Wired magazine asked at the time if Friendster was changing our friendships.

An Internet cultural war raged over whether or not it was good for Friendster to allow people to create fake celebrity accounts — or more creatively, member pages for objects and ideas, such as the City of New York, Abstract Expressionism, or The Sad Realization That Deadwood Isn’t All That Funny. A satiric site called Dogster — Friendster for dogs — became popular among dog owners who weren’t joking.

But Friendster was soon run off the road by MySpace, which allowed music, videos and other features on personal pages. Technical glitches also plagued the site as it grew faster than its developers probably planned for. “The few countries where it succeeded, like the Philippines,” one former user messaged me, “were areas where every website was down or slow all the time, so people didn’t mind.”

The $100 million exit is roughly twice the total of $45.4 million the company raised in four rounds. Early investors included LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Benchmark Capital.

That’s a decent return on investment. But compared to Facebook, it’s a cautionary tale that being first isn’t always best.

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