Confessions of a bad Friendster

Special to The Times

Let me just admit it. I have not been a very good Friendster. And this has let some people down. I'm sorry. Frankly, I was caught off guard by how serious everyone is about it.

Friendster (www.friendster.com) is an online social hall where people -- and the people who know those people, and the people who know those people -- can meet and hook up. Unlike Nerve or JDate, Friendster, as the name implies, is not simply a singles forum, although it most certainly is that -- it attempts to mimic the way social interactions work in the three-dimensional world. Rather than lump people and their profiles into one giant pool or predictable categories (men seeking women, women seeking women), it operates on the degrees-of-separation principle. You invite or are invited by a friend, and once accepted you not only can contact your new Friendster but can access any of his or her other friends, even the friends' friends. The Beta version went online in March of this year. By May, it had 300,000 users. Today, the population of Friendster Nation exceeds 1 million.

I became one of those million after a chance meeting with Cynthia this past summer. She mentioned all the people we knew who were on it (most of these blasts from the past, now that I think about it, I'm content to let stay that way), how it's a great way to send around party invites, find out what's going on, make connections when traveling. I wouldn't have imagined that anything that goes by such a dorky name as Friendster could ever win the loyalty of the jaded hip, but this is not the case. In the trendy swath of Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park where I live, I hear or overhear the word at least a dozen times in the days following. "Dude, it's the coolest," I hear. "You can promote shows, see what's going on." People hook up, score one-night-standsters, girlfriendsters or even -- I hear of at least one example -- a wifester. Because you can control access to your group, even celebrities feel comfortable on Friendster.

Curious as to what all this Friendstermania is about, I accept Cynthia's invitation to sign up. Tracy and Sed seem excited about my joining and invite me to be their Friendster friends too. It doesn't seem to require much commitment on my part, so I agree. But here again, I am proven wrong.

"Your profile is boring," Tracy quickly e-mails with some irritation. This is a cruel exaggeration on her part. My profile, to be accurate, is nonexistent.

Friendster asks you to submit a photo and some personal information. What kind of people you're looking for, favorite bands and "things about yourself." Profiles range from the sincere to the arty and edgy. For instance, in her profile, Kaye, who is my Friendster once removed, expresses an attraction to "hot dudes who are into totalitarian government." Dennis (through Cynthia, through Dia) sums himself up with the oblique "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." I think about how I want to represent myself -- what tortured ironies and non sequiturs would best convey the essential me -- and decide I don't. As far as what attracts me to other people or what I think other people will find attractive in me, well, I can find no single book, band or leisure preference to sum it all up. Going out and meeting actual people, therefore, seems a better and more enjoyable investment of my time. That is, until I run into one of my Friendster friends.

"You don't even have a photo," Sed berates me in an encounter at an Echo Park hangout. "That's really looked down upon in Friendsterland." Et tu, Sed? She has two photos up. Cynthia has five. Some have even more. You know, the sexy one, the active one, the party one, the distorted face-up-in-the-lens one. Instead of my photo, there's just the default icon -- a blank box with a question mark in it. Perhaps my self-image is need of therapeutic intervention, but I find it a pretty flattering representation.

It's not that I'm some kind of cyber-Luddite. I upgrade my PC every three years. I have hi-speed DSL and WiFi so I can surf anywhere in my apartment. I check my e-mail compulsively. It's just that I refuse to reduce myself to an online profile. I occasionally imagine the witty missives I could send -- "Hi, Sherri. I know you through Caroline who knows Canela who knows Tracy. Anyway, I think it's so cool that I found someone who loves both Foucault and Tom Jones, and I was wondering.... " And then, naturally, I don't bother.

"Did you even read my testimonials yet?" Sed complains. Of course I haven't. Nor, despite being something of a professional where the written word is concerned, have I offered to write any. What's the point? You post testimonials about your friends for their Friendsters to read and they post testimonials about you. All the testimonials have to be approved by the subject, of course. It's kind of like letting Quentin Tarantino vet the reviews of "Kill Bill." So you get stuff like: "Cynthia's so rad I've known her for about 12 years and she just keeps getting more babelicious by the hour!"

Sed says I'm missing the point -- and the fun. "They're like birthday cards except you get them all year round," she says. Then you can talk about them. "Did you see what Mark wrote? Did you see what I wrote about Mark?" Friendster not only finds you friends, it becomes the topic of what you talk to them about. (Of course, I haven't tested this idea with Tracy, who by this time has stopped responding to my e-mails, or even old-fashioned voicemail messages.)

Not doing my share

More Friendster infractions: I ignore the mass e-mail announcements -- Joe's birthday party is this Saturday (BYOB); can anybody watch my cat? I've ignored all of them. Even the invite for free drinks at a "Lost in Translation" party. Say what you will about me, I'm no fair-weather Friendster. Worst of all, I stop sending or responding to invitations to join other groups of friends, thus depriving all my friends and Friendsters and their friends and Friendsters any access to other friends and Friendsters, and so on. And yet, thanks to the exponential increase in Friendsters with each degree, through my meager three friends, I'm still connected to 184,926. "Pathetic," Sed opines. "I have over 400,000." That's because she and Tracy have around 30 friends each. Cynthia, a social butterfly online and off, has accumulated a staggering 91 friends on her own. Some have hundreds. Then again, what's the purpose of having more Friendsters you can meet in a single lifetime?

So crucial is it to have a large personal network that a new site has popped up, Pretendster, that will generate nonexistent friends so you can appear more popular. Also rampant is the phenomenon of Fakesters, individuals who participate in Friendsters as characters, as opposed to themselves. This is highly controversial among Friendsters but, frankly, the only part of the whole deal I find appealing. While I don't really feel like looking for love via modem, it might be interesting to e-mail Friedrich Nietzsche (whom I'm connected to through Sed) to further expand on his ideas about evil and power. Then there's the most intriguing clone site, STDster, which uses the Friendster template to track, well, you know. I can't resist a peek, but when I click on the icon, a window opens informing me it's all a joke.

Though I am loath to admit it, how you feel about Friendster is for the most part determined by demographics. In particular, age. Scrolling through the profiles indicates that Friendsters fall heavily between 18 and 28, when the urge to maximize your social contacts is at its peak, as well as a time when whether you're a goth or listen to reggae and dub is a really big deal. Anyway, the fact that a 43-year-old bachelor such as, uh, myself doesn't feel comfortable fishing around Friendster should, far from arousing ire, be welcomed as a gesture of seemliness -- though this quality is one of which I'm not often accused.

Friendster has always been free, but rumors sweep the idyllic online world about new fees once the site goes off Beta. In an e-mail, company president Jon Abrams says "membership is free and always will be," then adds, "eventually we will add some premium features." Cynthia, however, has a plan. If the fees start, she and her friends are going to defect to www.everyonesconnected.com. Graphically snazzier, this copycat site from the U.K. features a watercolor portrait of a hip-hop-looking dude in a black baseball cap as the default photo. I'll miss the old question mark, though. It seemed more ... me.

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