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Click: You're friends

New Internet dating site brings people together -- by degrees.

May 29, 2003|Tommy Nguyen | Special to the Times

For many people, the theory that all people are connected through a finite number of intermediate acquaintances -- the proverbial "six degrees of separation" -- simply added up to one big "Yeah, so?"

From John Guare's prize-winning play to a silly celebrity book-turned-board game (thanks to Kevin Bacon) to the short-lived late-'90s Web site SixDegrees.com, they none answered the key question: How can this notion get me a date for Saturday?

Merging the phenomena of dating and six degrees of separation is the new Web site www.friendster.com, which connects its members through a network of friends, separating itself from other dating sites by vast degrees.

"I felt that these dating sites, where you surf through anonymous people, were kind of creepy," says Jonathan Abrams, creator of the 9-month-old beta site. "We're providing an environment where there's more of a sense of accountability in the way people behave and represent themselves. That's all because of your friends." They're watching.

They're presumably reading, too, which means I should confess that after just three weeks of membership, I've become modestly addicted to friendster.com. I'll discuss addiction later, when I introduce Victoria and Billy. Both belong to my "personal network," which, on Friendster, represents four degrees of separation: I'm zero, my friends represent the first degree, their friends the second degree and so on.

Through my 40 first-degree friends -- those I've personally invited or vice versa -- I have 28,260 people in my personal network, a seemingly unruly broadband party for my taste.

But if I'm looking for a certain someone amid that crowd, I can go through the Gallery and set the basic filters for age, sexual orientation and location. Or I can simply surf my friends' first-degree clusters, or their friends' clusters (uploading a photo is critical on Friendster's heavily thumbnailed terrain) and then send a message directly to the hottie I've found or request an introduction from an intermediary.

Abrams says that although future users will have the option to increase or decrease the degrees of separation, the network concept will remain the same: Out of all the Friendster users (nearly 300,000, growing at about 20% a week, according to Abrams), only a subset of that population can be viewed by a member. "On Match.com," says Abrams, "8 million people can see and miss each other, which is the fundamental difference with Friendster."

On Friendster, members can strut a little more naturally under the assumption that everyone on the site had simply accepted a friend's invitation to join. So, if I end up finding a romantic hookup through Friendster, great. If nothing happens, I can still tell my bruised ego, "Dude, I'm just hanging out with my friends. Whatever."

That could easily be true on Friendster, since the friends-maintenance aspect of the site is an endless source of ego-healing entertainment.

Which brings me to Victoria, a 21-year-old self-described Friendster addict living in New Paltz, N.Y. With 977 first-degree friends and counting, she is the "friendliest" member in my personal network (we're separated by three degrees). Of course, most of her "friends" (about 80%, according to Victoria) are just strangers she contacted through Friendster, but she maintains that they're still her friends: "I'm not about being exclusive," she says.

Billy, a friend from Los Angeles who's also a Friendster addict, thinks some degree of exclusivity among your first-degree friends is what makes the site work properly and that "friend whores," as Billy calls them, are corrupting the site.

"Everyone on my friends list is a real friend, and Friendster has become this amazing thing where people I've lost touch with are reconnecting," says the 28-year-old. "People like Victoria should just collect baseball cards."

Oddly enough, that's certainly one of the more twisted attractions of Friendster: It's a site that lines up my friends like trading cards, where it's easy to be absurdly preoccupied with the way some cards seem to add more value to my collection than others. Another attraction is that Friendster profiles can be hilariously irreverent, since most members want to entertain their friends.

There's a U.K.-based counterpart to this connect-the-friends frenzy that's even more susceptible to high school shenanigans. Unlike Friendster, www.everyonesconnected.com, which launched its live site in January, allows its current 10,000 members (about 20% from the U.S.) to write testimonials about their friends without their friends' approval. (Ripe for enemy-making drama is a profile area called Embarrassing Stories.)

Although Everyonesconnected is ultimately a bit too fussy for more casual users and too cutthroat for squeamish friends, it does have one feature that's a great matchmaker.

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