We are losing the online equivalent of our national town square, where we gathered to gossip, writes Paul Little.

You don't miss the water until the well runs dry, you don't know what you've got until it's gone, and you don't get agitated about a website you hardly ever visit until Trade Me tells you it is closing it down.

Oldfriends.co.nz is part of the loose affiliation of Trade Me-related sites that also includes the money-spinning buy-and-sell anchor and probably the liveliest message board in the country.

The latter is all the evidence needed to prove that we are as cantankerous, crazy and expressive as any other nation on Earth.

It's well worth a visit and soon - given what's happening to Oldfriends, it's not likely to be around much longer.

Advertisement

The imminent extinction of Oldfriends.co.nz was announced by an email to subscribers that was a masterpiece of corporate doublespeak.

The missive was described as an "update about Oldfriends" - in much the same way as a death sentence could be described as an "update on the state of your future".

"Why are you closing down Oldfriends?" the email asked itself. Because "we're always working hard to improve the experience for our members.

To focus on building better products, sometimes we need to stop supporting older versions of our websites."

Oh good. They're going to make it even better. What exciting developments can I look forward to?

"From early to mid-January, the Oldfriends site will be closed down and you won't be able to access it any more. Any data will also be deleted."

So, it's an improvement in the same way Darth Vader uses a death star to improve your planet.

There's seldom been such a straight-faced use of mollifying corporate doublespeak to dress up a high-handed piece of customer-ignoring.

Advertisement

An online petition was soon gestating at change.org. It was originally addressed to Sam Morgan, the petitioners obviously not having noticed when Sam flicked Trade Me on in 2006.

Within 48 hours it had amassed three signatures, which is possibly as much a reflection on change.org's popularity as it is on that of Oldfriends. In fact, most of the lamenting about Oldfriends' fate occurred at Facebook.

Oldfriends had impressive numbers. These included 1,621,577 members - nearly half the population - plus 2300 schools, 36,000 workplaces, 7100 clubs, 164 marae and 689 military institutions (no, I didn't know we had that many either. I'm guessing they're counting Sea Scouts).

But even those numbers weren't able to be converted into any sort of income. So goodbye, Oldfriends.

What's being lost here is something that's not available anywhere else online. Quite early in its short life, Trade Me developed into a virtual national piazza.

Oldfriends congregation of thousands of former employees of large organisations in one easily accessed location, grouped by a year was a boon for journalists.
Oldfriends congregation of thousands of former employees of large organisations in one easily accessed location, grouped by a year was a boon for journalists.

Between the chatting on the message boards, the hawking of wares in the marketplace, bumping into old friends and just hanging out to see what might be happening, it was our virtual equivalent of those squares in the centres of European towns where people do those things in real life.

Our towns don't have those spaces. But for a while we had Oldfriends and the rest of Trade Me.

If you wanted to know things about your community, or find out the best way to do something, or bump into someone interesting, one or other of Trade Me's spaces was the place you could do it.

Many of the functions Oldfriends performed have been supplanted, of course, by other social media, notably Facebook. But Oldfriends had several advantages over Facebook.

Its congregation of thousands of former employees of large organisations in one easily accessed location, grouped by a year was a boon for journalists.

If you wanted to bypass corporate gatekeepers and find an old hand ready to blab about an incident from the past, you could quickly track one down.

OldFriends' bland structure was old-fashioned Kiwi in the way that it made everyone equal, too - there was no hierarchy of spurious validation based on shares and likes.

And you were in control. There was no data mining dressed up as a brilliant innovation. If there were ads or "sponsored links" I never noticed them.

You couldn't end up inadvertently signing up for notifications every time a crank posted on the Candlemakers Hall of Fame demanding to know why an unsung genius of the art hadn't been inducted.

The fate of Oldfriends was out of members' control but after a few days of agitation there came at least a portion of good news.

"We've been in touch with the National Library of New Zealand team who run a 'web harvest' initiative," reported Trade Me's Paul Ford, "and the good news for fans of Oldfriends is that this will include archiving publicly available information that is part of Oldfriends. That will remain available even after Oldfriends closes early next year."

Names bring back long-lost memories

For those whose school days were not the best of their lives, messages can be poignant. Photo / Getty Images
For those whose school days were not the best of their lives, messages can be poignant. Photo / Getty Images

I don't want to overstate Oldfriends' usefulness as a place where you could find and reconnect with blasts from the past. Some of my old school mates are on there, but not many.

Although I registered long ago, I don't think I was ever contacted by one genuine old friend on Oldfriends or been in direct communication with anyone through the site.

However, where there are overlaps, even with people whose names I don't remember, they can bring pack the past with some force.

Margaret Laycock, for instance, who was apparently at primary school with me, has memories that mirror mine: "I remember the Minties scrambles with Fr McMahon, the willow tree, the large pond with water lilies, toffee made by the nuns, bullrush & warm milk from the crate and lots of great friends."

For those whose school days were not the best of their lives, messages can be poignant and in this case confirm the impression I had as a day pupil at the time of how miserable boarders were:

"I hated boarding school but I still managed to get a reasonable education. Sadly the talk about abuse kids received at Catholic schools is true."

Another former classmate declares with restrained bitterness: "I wish I'd gone to Auckland Grammar with my mates from Normal Intermediate."

Oldfriends also reminded me of many teachers' names that were a source of amusement and curiosity.

What possessed normally named men, on becoming Marist brothers, to rename themselves after obscure historic figures and grandly become Brother Marcian, Cletus, Cannissius or Anselm?

Then there are things and people you'd forgotten but remember vividly when prompted. There's our former teacher Miss Chisholm.

I can't remember what she taught us, but I do remember that in homage to her and to Suzanne Lynch's Shade Smith-written hit Sunshine through a Prism we were wont to sing under our voices "Have you ever seen the sun shine through Miss Chisholm?"

She's not the only person with a musical connection to be found. Browsing through the university section I came across one Cheryl Moana Rowles Waetford.