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Confessions of a bad Friendster

No one wants to be lonely, but maybe being connected to 184,926 others is too much of a good thing.

November 02, 2003|Mark Ehrman | 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.

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