Two months ago, I could have gotten 30 people to show up to a party if I was lucky. Now, I’m happily connected to 250,000 dear comrades and trusted co-conspirators—that’s more than the entire population of Belize. I owe my newly hypertrophied social circle to Friendster, the site that’s become everyone’s favorite time-waster over the last few months.
Created by Jonathan Abrams, anengineer and entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley, and launched in March, Friendster’s been growing incredibly quickly—a million users so far, half of whom have joined in the last month alone, which explains why its system is very often overloaded and unavailable. There have been services somewhat like Friendster before, most notably the now-defunct sixdegrees.com, which presented itself as a professional networking tool and never attained the same sort of critical mass. (There was always something off-putting about its chilly design and goal-oriented attitude.) So, why has Friendster taken off? The short answer is that it acts like a toy rather than a resource: It doesn’t want to make you successful, it wants to make you happy. It’s effectively unchaperoned; it doesn’t try to introduce you to anyone unless you ask to be introduced. Its atmosphere has more in common with a neighborhood barbecue than a singles bar or a career fair. Nobody would want to be a cog in a million-person organization, but who doesn’t want more friends?
Like any kind of distributed network, from Napster to the Internet itself, the more people that use Friendster, the better it works. But unlike most networks, it works better for you personally if you convince people you already know to use it. Your status within the network is obvious to you and everyone else who looks you up: it’s determined by the sheer number of friends you’ve got. (That number can also be too high. Excessively promiscuous “friends,” the kind who indiscriminately link to hundreds of people they almost certainly don’t know, are like the people who call you by name on the street after shaking hands with you at a party once.) And your value to people who might want to meet you through Friendster is partly determined by the way the friends you already have choose to flatter you.
That’s one of the cleverest aspects of Friendster and a key to its kissy-kissy vibe: It gets its users to boost each other’s egos with “testimonials.” Write something nice about your friend, and it’ll show up on his or her page, like a high-school yearbook photo exposed to the world. You can tell a lot about people from the way their pals write about them. Some people’s testimonials are the kind of breathlessly earnest praise that’s usually restricted to book-jacket copy and Ecstasy parties (“an incandescent creature of light and laughter”), others’ are mostly flippant sarcasm (“I just wish he would stop stealing my lunch money and punching my cats in the mouth”), still others’ are … strangely reticent ("It’s too bad that it couldn’t work out for us!”).
Having a few friends who are close enough to write convincing recommendations for you will do you one kind of good on Friendster, especially if you’re looking for potential mates; having a whole lot of vague acquaintances who are willing to vet you with a single click will do you another kind of good, since it will make your personal network bigger. In the month and a half I’ve been using Friendster, I’ve gotten unexpected messages from a couple of long-lost acquaintances, a couple of friends-of-friends who had questions for me, and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. (Well, that’s who she claimed she was.) Of course, the flip side of expanding your network is the wincing awkwardness of people who don’t really know you, or who like you more than you like them, asking to be your friend. (I usually just ignore the request and hope it goes away.) And the flip side of having all your friends on one convenient Web page is that it’s often wise to keep some of them at a safe distance from each other.
Friendster is still nominally in beta, and its search function seems especially buggy. In particular, it can’t search users’ profiles for words of three letters or fewer. Hence, it’s impossible to look for other people who are interested in “ska” or “Ang Lee” or “Zen,” although “gardening” and “sodomy” work just fine. The site is free now, but plans to make money eventually by charging people to send messages to each other; it claims not to sell addresses and personal data to marketers. It’ll probably be a lot less appealing once it starts charging, though. An allegedly well-connected L.A. hipster recently auctioned off a Friendster link on eBay; it says something heartening about the relationship between money and friendship that he didn’t get much more than $12 for it. In any case, it’s not clear how valuable the data Friendster gathers would be to potential advertisers. The consensus is that there’s something a little suspect about filling out the profile questionnaire entirely in earnest—the idea seems to be to give accurate information but make it clear that you have enough of a life not to take it too seriously.
Some regular Friendster users take the obvious next step: fabrication. It’s a cinch to create an extra profile under a different name, and most people linked to more than 10 or 12 friends seem to have at least a few who are dubious: not just celebrities and pets, but locations, fictional characters, objects, sexual acts, and abstract conditions. My extended network presently includes, among others, Shrinkage, Ireland, Phoebe Cates’ Tits, 14 different entities identified as “God,” and “Indignacious the indignant echidna.” Particularly clever users have started inventing personae who are just this side of real; these personae then comment on each other. Mishandled correctly, the Friendster profile and its attendant testimonials are almost their own short-fiction genre, halfway between a character sketch and an epistolary tale. I check every few days to see what’s up with DJNoBabyMom, the former horse-camp counselor who’s “interested in meeting Barcelonan honeys who can get raw on the dance floor” while she’s waiting for her husband to get paroled in 2006.
The most fascinating feature of Friendster, though, is the way it makes overlapping social circles visible, mapping out exactly how you’re connected to any other user within four steps of you. There’s a fellow named George (I don’t think I’ve ever met him) who has all of two Friendster friends in common with me, but I know 11 other people who know one of his friends, and he knows another 13 people who know one of mine, and he keeps coming up as a link in my connection diagrams, over and over. Once you’ve spent a little while investigating your network, you get a sense of who the real social hubs of the Internet are: not just your popular friends, but the users you don’t know whose names turn up again and again in your chains of acquaintance, and who have long lists of enthusiastic testimonials. They’re the ones who know everybody and therefore “run the world,” the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about memorably in The New Yorker a few years ago. They’ve got friends with a wide range of ages and occupations, which lets them connect people from otherwise separate social circles; they’re the ones whose high school yearbooks everybody signed. Some of them are even real people.