From fakery to comfort in MySpace

Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times' editorial pages.

MY NAME IS Swati, and I am an online social-networking addict. At rock bottom I was spending several hours a day on various sites with my fake friends and my fake selves. I was a member of Friendster and Facebook. I had blogs on Xanga and Blogspot. I joined Tribe on a whim, Second Life out of geeky curiosity and Bebo, a popular site in Britain, by mistake.

It was a lot, but I told myself that I had it all under control. Then along came MySpace. MySpace was both illness and cure. I found myself in a different kind of dysfunctional online relationship: more honest, maybe, but also more dull. MySpace is a necessity, a daily part of my life and many others’ lives, as ordinary as e-mail.

What first intrigued me about online social networking — the strange process of creating a personality on an Internet page — was the possibility of self-creation and self-promotion, of shaping an ideal online persona that didn’t resemble my imperfect offline self. And that’s exactly what I did with my first online profile, which I established in the spring of 2003 on Friendster, founded the previous year.


Today, Friendster is fairly stagnant, but when it was launched it somehow gained the initial edge among arbiters of cool. Among my friends it was simply an acceptable way to pick up not-quite strangers for dates. Friendster let users control who could see their profiles by degrees of separation, an appropriate method for our networked world. Best of all, it let you meet friends of friends of friends and pretend they were somehow your friends too.

Accordingly, I posted a few flirty photos with the requisite props — lip-glossed pout, candy-colored beverage. I filled out my profile with playful first-date details such as my sign and what job the 10-year-old me wanted when I grew up (National Geographic photographer).

Friendster’s message board — which appeared on-screen with every profile — was a place for friends to comment on my general lovability.

On Friendster I was my best date-worthy self. But Friendster dates, when they actually took place, turned out to be no better than regular dates. In both cases, friends set you up with friends and insist that “you have so much in common,” but you quickly learn that a mutual affection for “The Big Lebowski” only carries you so far. The summer of Friendster love was over; there were no more dates, and there was only so much you could do on the site, because it was a while before Friendster allowed posting a blog, sharing photos and other, more interactive features.

It was nearly a year before Facebook arose to fill the Friendster void. Facebook, for its first few months, was a playground for select college coeds like me. Users peppered their profiles with esoterica to impress and outwit their friends while freely posting incriminating photos of underage people drinking, protected by Facebook’s original policy of not allowing users without an e-mail address from your school, or whom you have picked as a friend, to view your complete profile (now users can also network by workplace or region). Like everyone else, I posted a few pretentious interests and a list of “likes” in seemingly random order, as if I hadn’t given them a second thought. I joined the game of accumulating as many friends as possible, racking up about 150.

But the Facebook honeymoon for me ended with graduation. After that, I felt self-conscious commingling with my friends in college and grad school who were still posting their classes on their profiles. I needed to move on. And when my boss, with whom I shared an alma mater, found my profile and started asking questions (What’s in that red cup you’re holding? Who is that guy in your profile picture with the black eye?), I knew it was time for me to log out. Fake, or even just exaggerated, online identities weren’t really working for me.

Little did I know that MySpace would be the site where I could be the real me. I successfully ignored its siren song for months, despite its brief period of having an edgy, even dangerous allure. I sat on the sidelines, glancing at the publicly available profiles of MySpace stars like the Arctic Monkeys, who went from a small show to having a hit song in weeks, thanks in large part to the site, and Tila Tequila, the assiduous social climber whose accumulation of hundreds of thousands of “friends” launched her career in the great trifecta of celebrity industries — pop music, modeling and fashion design.

I finally joined last spring, when the site simply seemed unavoidable. Bands were announcing tour dates and secret shows on MySpace. Friends were sending out party invitations. Bars were posting weekly drink specials.

So on I went. MySpace’s technology made it easier to reflect myself through more than just a list of “likes” and “interests,” though I did post my favorite book (“Lolita”) and TV show (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” at least the first four seasons). I posted music (right now it’s the rapper Lady Sovereign covering the Sex Pistols) and videos (a YouTube of the “DuckTales” theme song in some mysterious language).

I could type in personalized HTML code. Or I could if I knew how — I settled for one of the hundreds of pre-made codes available online for the taking; it turned my page black and white and posted a pin-up of Rita Hayworth in the background. It’s the perfect way to represent your online self in an era in which every consumer product ostensibly signals something about your personality or status, through products as diverse as Giant Robot T-shirts and flower-shaped tea strainers by Koziol.

If Friendster was about fabricating a flirty persona, and Facebook about the intellectual and/or the drunk, MySpace would have to be about, shockingly, myself. Too many people I knew — from high school classmates to my cousin’s dog — were on the site already or could use it. At 50 million users, it far outranks Friendster and Facebook.

Too many ordinary interactions occur through the site; it supplements or even replaces e-mail, instant messaging and invitations. And too many advertisers regularly promote movies, music and almost everything else on it. Its very ordinariness, in fact, is what makes MySpace so popular, and it’s why I have to stay on it. Everything happens there. In a sense, MySpace represents both the height of the social networking phenomenon and its end; it fulfills the promise of the Web and exposes it.

MySpace is a lot like the rest of my life. It has become routine. The site is too broad to be edgy or dangerous, too common to be cool, too real to be hyper-real. That leaves me free to be my dull offline self.