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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 16:55 GMT
Friends Reunited: We'll meet again?
New horizons for Friends Reunited
Friends Reunited, the website which has reunited long-lost schoolmates, is branching out to include former workmates. Chris Jones, of the BBC's News Profiles Unit, reports on the couple that set up this internet phenomenon.

For more than two years, nostalgia freaks, which includes just about everybody, have been reminiscing by e-mail about those moments behind-the bike sheds, or how "Snotty" Smith fell fully-clothed into the swimming pool.

If the class fool has turned out to be a captain of industry, it can be soul-destroying.

Psychologist Prof Cary Cooper

Now, through Workplace Reunited, thousands have begun swapping stories about the time the photocopier gave way under the strain of another naked backside or trying to establish just what that truculent woman did say to her boss when she was sacked.

It all began in July 1999, when Julie Pankhurst, a software programmer, was pregnant with her daughter, Amber.

While an American site, had already reunited many high school friends, Julie and her husband Steve, both in their 30s, found the internet did not enable her to trace her former classmates from Cromer Road Primary and Queen Elizabeth's Girls' School in Barnet.

"All we found was message boards," said Steve. "There was no structure, so it was like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Scanning the list of classmates
Now, any new names?

So, after months of nagging, Julie finally persuaded Steve to write the Friends Reunited site in the spare bedroom of their three-bedroom semi in Barnet, north London.

The idea has proved a resounding success, gathering more staff along the way and more than five million registered members.

Although registering is free, it costs £5 a year if you want to e-mail someone you have seen listed on the site. It's estimated that about two million users have paid the fee over the past year.

A BBC2 television series, Class Of..., a nostalgia quiz presented by Zoe Ball, in which school contemporaries are brought together again, is the first of what promises to be a wave of programmes inspired by the Friends Reunited website.

The site has led to several engagements, and two especially notable reunions, between a man and his mother after a 53-year separation, and between a man and the cat that his friend "borrowed" in the late 80s.

Libel action

But it has also led to a libel action by a former teacher. He learned a few days ago that he could expect to receive up to £5,000 damages after suing a man who posted a message on Friends Reunited.

It falsely alleged that he had been sacked for making "rude remarks" about girl pupils, when in fact he had taken early retirement. Steve and Julie Pankhurst have since tightened their code of conduct.

Steve Pankhurst
Steve Pankhurst offers a hand to friendship

Family groups in the United States have warned of the threat to marriages that might arise from re-lighting an affair with an old flame and the danger of "electronic stalking".

There is also a word of caution from psychologists for people thinking of a trip down Memory Lane by attending a school reunion. Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology says the biggest shock will be how old your classmates look.

"In our own minds, we are still young," says Prof Cooper. "When you see all these balding middle-aged men and wrinkled women, you are suddenly faced with an unwelcome reality about yourself.


"And if the class fool has turned out to be a captain of industry, it can be soul-destroying."

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Steve Pankhurst on life before Friends Reunited

Steve Pankhurst himself is no fan: "It's true many Brits, like me, don't really want to meet anyone they went to school with, while in the US they love their yearbooks and formal get-togethers.

"But we are a very nosy nation and everybody would like to know what people they were at school with are doing, as long as they don't have to meet them. That's what has made the site so successful."

Zoe Ball
Zoe Ball, quizzing TV teams on school nostalgia

Steve would be more inclined to use the Pankhursts' latest brainchild, Workplace Reunited, which has added the names of more than 400,000 current UK workplaces to the database containing 45,000 schools.

In its first two weeks, 190,000 people have registered with the new facility.

Serious ambitions

Imitations such as Bullies Reunited and Cliques Reunited (slogan: "No, you can't join") are more intent on satire than reunion. But the Pankhursts' ambitions are serious.

Apart from franchising their idea throughout Europe and South Africa, they are planning to launch a similar service for people who served in the armed forces.

In the tradition of their suffragette namesake, they are seemingly intent on giving everyone a voice.

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