Online with 395.000 of my best friends

  • 2005-09-07
  • By Jody Yurkowsky
RIGA - It started out as the simple idea to create an online community in Latvia similar to those in Britain and the United States. The American Web site was a phenomenal hit, and local sites such as seemed to be growing in popularity. The goal was to create an online portal where friends could reconnect, chat and meet new people. On the first day, 20 people signed up. The next day, there were 80 people. By the end of the fourth day, the number had risen to 1,000 and thus, was born.
A year and a half into this adventure, there are more than 395,000 people using draugiem, and the number increases everyday. To join, one only needs an invitation from a current member, which isn't too hard to get considering that 15 percent of Latvia's population is already registered.

Creator and founder Lauris Liberts, 28, smiles when we talk about the number of people who are in the online community.

"I still can't make sense of such a large number," he says with a bit of wonder. "When we reached 1,000 it seemed big, then we reached 10,000 and it was amazing. It keeps growing. I didn't imagine this."

The first year was a lot of work. Liberts explains that, in the beginning, the programmers came to his house: "They worked, and I made them food to keep them going," laughs the guru, who has turned into one of Latvia's most infamous eligible bachelors. "It was a tough start."

Today, has a full-time staff of five and an office on Bruninieku Street in downtown Riga. "Working in one office, we are more of a team. If something comes up, we have other people to talk to and generate ideas with."

And generating ideas is certainly something that the folks at draugiem are good at. Not satisfied with letting the Web site ride on the success it's already achieved, Liberts and his team are constantly developing new ways to make the site better.

In addition to a personal profile, each member has access to photo albums, chats, forums and notice boards for upcoming events that other friends might be interested in. Members can even create interest groups and invite others to join. Some of the most popular are about love and sex (with over 14,000 members), hip-hop music (almost 5,000) and the band Prata Vetra (just over 4,000). Each day new events and activities are posted 's after all, what better recommendation can an event get than to be suggested by a friend or a friend of a friend? has also encouraged the online community to meet up in the real world. By organizing invitation-only parties where members can meet in person, listen to good music, and simply relax in the company of friends, the cyberspace concept of an online community becomes reality. has clearly become a way for busy Latvians to keep in touch and build networks, but what is it that makes the page so attractive? Why has it caught so many people in its web?

"People need to know," says Liberts, in response to an option where members pay 35 santimi a month to see who has visited their profile. Not only has this feature been a huge draw, but it helps finance the site, says Liberts.

But there is more to draugiem than just the peeping tom factor.

" allows me to communicate with friends who I can't meet on a regular basis," says Linda, a member who regularly uses the Web site. "I have friends who, if it weren't for the Web site, I might lose contact with almost altogether."

"It's an easy way to pass information around," says Inga, another draugiem fan who admits that she uses the site everyday for several hours. "If I need information, I can simply send a note to all my friends, and within a few hours I know that several thousand people have the information. I have only 78 friends myself, but my friend's friends total almost 7,000."

The vast number of people using the site has made it Latvia's largest and, perhaps most famous database.

"We enforce a first and last name policy on the site," Liberts explains when asked about privacy. "Because this is a site for friends, it needs to be safe."

Although the Web site affords anonymity to everyone, at, most people prefer to be known.

Even Latvia's rich and famous use the site. A quick search nets rock stars, politicians and top business leaders 's all using their real names. But Liberts is not forthcoming about who exactly uses draugiem.

"Go in and search for yourself if you want, we like to give our more famous users privacy because otherwise they can get harassed. People bombard them with invitations to be friends, but most of them want to use draugiem the same way you and I do 's to keep in touch with our real friends and learn about our friend's friends."

The entrepreneur admits that some people create fake profiles, but says that this isn't the norm.

"People tend to feel uncomfortable when someone strange comes into their circle of friends," Liberts explains, adding that in such a close-knit online community, it's hard for people to create fabricated profiles without someone noticing.

It's usually the members themselves who control the fake profiles by reporting them to the administrators, he says. It only takes a few questions to determine a profile's validity. If it's real, it stays. The fake ones go.

There are countless cases of old friends meeting up after years. Families have reunited through draugiem. And love and betrayal abounds. One story recently posted tells of a guy who caught his girlfriend with his best friend. He logged into draugiem with her password and read her letters to discover the horrible truth. The Web site reflects life 's online.

Despite its phenomenal popularity, not everyone is happy with At any given moment during a weekday afternoon, there are 10,000 's 15,000 people logged onto the site 's many during their work hours. To combat this problem, some businesses have banned staff from logging onto the site during company time.

Latio Realty and the Vakaras Zinas newspaper are two firms who have made the decision to deny their staff access during work hours. It seems that the lure of friends can sometimes hinder work productivity.

With all that it has achieved, what's on the horizon for "To slowly grow," answers Liberts.

A recipient of this year's Chevening Scholarship in the U.K., the Latvian will move to England this fall to study for his Masters in IT Administration, while managing draugiem from afar.

With sites already in Lithuania and Italy, and talks to launch draugiem in Sweden, the site looks to be expanding. In fact, almost 10 percent of its current members live outside Latvia.

"This is a concept with unlimited potential," Liberts says. "We want to develop it so that it isn't restricted to only Latvia. I see the potential to have draugiem in many languages all over the world."