If you actually conceived the new invention yourself (i.e., you didn't copy it), and you were the first to do so, then basically all you have to do is provide a written description of the invention that would enable a hypothetical "person of ordinary skill" in the relevant art(s) to make and use the invention.
(There are other requirements too, of course - for example, you have to disclose the "best mode," as then subjectively contemplated by you, for practicing the invention; you have to provide at least one written claim, which in essence is an infringement checklist; you have to disclose to the patent examiner all "information material to patentability" that you know about; you can't wait more than one year after the first offer for sale, public use, publication, etc.)
Here's the underlying assumption: The first inventor should be allowed to set up a toll booth for 20 years (originally 17 years) as a reward for "merely" documenting how to practice the invention in a centralized national database, that is, in the Patent Office collection.
That might have made sense 200 years ago. But I've long wondered whether that part of the patent law has outlived its usefulness -- arguably we don't need the same incentives to help build up a national library of engineering knowledge as we did in 1790.
It looks like the patent covers a process for inviting to connect with users or "friending".
I can't believe that anyone hadn't done that before 2001. But I can't quite recall any in particular.
You can think of each individual claim in a patent as being a separate "infringement checklist." For a given claim to be infringed, all the elements of the claim must be present in the accused product or method, either literally or in the form of an "equivalent."
A claim is like an AND statement: If any element in a given claim is missing from the accused product or method (and a substantial "equivalent" of the missing element isn't there either), then that claim isn't infringed.
Note, however, that the several claims of a patent are OR'd together -- you might not infringe claim 1, but you still might infringe claim 15. All the patent owner needs to prove is infringement of a single claim.
(This assumes that the accused infringer doesn't prove that the infringed claims are invalid. In over-simplified terms, if the AND statement of a claim returns TRUE when applied to the prior art, then THAT claim is invalid. [Proving obviousness is a more-complicated analysis.])
AIM also had 'friending' functionality in '97.
LiveJournal also originated the term 'friending,' and was launched in '99.
EverQuest had 'friending' functionality - if you friended someone, you would be notified when they signed on/off, and could easily message them.
So has pretty much every MMO since.
I'm not certain, but I'm willing to bet that there were BBS's and MUDs that had this functionality.
This is an excellent example of an obvious patent with prior art on a business method that should never, ever have been granted by the patent office. Hopefully the Bilski case will render the whole issue moot.
Currently, Patents are all about making certain techniques (business processes, algorithms, etc.) illegal unless licensed.
Who honestly reads patents to learn about technology anymore?