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Sex in the Sub-City
High School is Back! The Rising Popularity of Friendster

There's a new website sweeping the nation, and if you haven't heard about you are fucking lame. At least, that seems to be the premise it's built on. Hot or Not is over; Mulletsgalore is passé; Fuckedcompany is so five-minutes-ago.com. I'm talking of course about Friendster, which is just like Napster, only instead of sharing music files you're sharing - you guessed it - friends. While I have mixed feelings about it, and think it's nothing more than an amusing time-waster, I'm on there nearly every day. And isn't that what the Internet is all about anyway, wasting time? I mean, aside from e-mail and porn, what else is there? Not much, so wasting time it is. And the best part about Friendster is that you don't have to do it alone.

The one exceptional feature the site has is how you get to see all the links in your chains of relations. For example, an acquaintance of mine, X, recently told me he had joined, so I typed his name into the database. I saw that I was connected to X by one of my friends, Y, and then by one of Y's friends, Z, who was friends with X. It's total Six Degrees of Separation, and seeing firsthand exactly how small the world is is interesting to say the least. One can type in names of exes, old co-workers, even childhood pals and discover that even though you haven't spoken in years, and have no idea of this person's whereabouts, they are still a part of your social network, however marginally.

Another cool thing about Friendster is how you can only interact with people within your network, which is determined by your friends, and your friends' friends. This means that even the people in it you don't know are connected to you somehow, making them less strangers than people you just haven't met yet. And developing a large network does not always mean having a buttload of friends. In fact, one only needs to know a few high-profile people to have access to a wide range of folks. For example, although I only have seventeen friends on the site, through them I am connected to almost 200,000 people. Most of my friends don't know each other, so few of their friends overlap, providing me with a large database of possible buddies. I imagine there are people with way more friends than me, and yet because they all are a part of the same scene, their available people pool is far less.

What I don't like about the site is how a person's network is displayed. Everyone makes up a fairly generic profile (occupation, hobbies, favorite movies, etc.), which includes pictures and a list of who their friends are. Therefore, anyone who looks at another's profile knows exactly how many friends they have. If you have a shitload of them, it's great, but if you don't (or, in my case, have friends who have no interest in joining an online community, no matter how much I beg), you look like a loser. So if you don't have a bunch of friends who are computer geeks, or at least enjoy spending hours online, it's probably best to stay away.

However, if you still want to participate, and worry about looking like a friendless dork, have no fear. Many of these "Friendsters" are not even real people, and almost everyone fattens their friend list with a few "characters." On a recent search I discovered Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Uday Hussein, Screech from Saved By the Bell, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jesus himself. Some are even more abstract, including Sex, Lust, Monkey Pox and Death. There's even a Williamsburg. And hardly anyone is immune. I myself am friends with Monica Lewinsky.

Another feature I have mixed feelings about are the "Testimonials," which further reinforce the high school nature of the site. Here you can write something about one of your friends, and whatever you write (if they approve it) will appear in their profile. It's almost like signing someone's yearbook, only your words are displayed for all to see. Some typical postings:

"This girl is the hottest thang in nyc. and knows her shiznat. she's got it dooooowwwn."

"Gorgeous, intelligent, friendly, compassionate, caring, funny and very classy--Couldn't ask for a better package deal than that folks!!!"

"This girl is one bad beeatch...double D's like the 23's...dang when she comes down the street girls move out the way!!! She a true dragon killa!!! beware of this hottieeee!!!"

Most Friendsters have a few of these (I have four, and one of them is from Monica), but others have tons. Some people have so many that to read them all would take an afternoon. Maybe it's just me, but when I come across people like this, instead of thinking this person is super cool and super connected, it makes me feel sorry for them.
It's as if their self-esteem is based entirely on encouraging words from their friends. And without such, without the actual proof right there on the page, they would cease to feel good about themselves, and immediately rush out and take their own lives.

Popularity is a strange thing, fleeting, subjective and ultimately ridiculous, and Friendster goes a long way in keeping its allure alive. However, even though most of my true friends are too smart to participate in such a thing (despite my pleading), and so I come across as less a quarterback or prom king than an outcast or a chain-smoking punk (which is closer to the truth anyway), I find myself on the thing everyday. This could be because, as mentioned, I enjoy seeing the connections between people, or because you do actually get to meet some interesting folks (so far I've met a fetish model, an opera singer, a sex therapist and an assortment of writers and musicians), or because it's fun.

Another reason though, which I think applies less to me and more to others, is because even outsiders enjoy seeing what the insiders are up to. How else does one explain E!, or Entertainment Tonight, or People? These are not geared towards its subjects, but to those who want to be them. Famous people, rich people, and yes, popular people are always in demand, and will always have a captive audience comprised of their less-than-fortunate peers.

However, the bottom line is this: if you are truly cool, or have a busy, productive life, then you don't have time for Friendster. Which means that those people who spend every waking hour on the site, creating vast networks of friends, their profiles dripping with praise, are really the true losers out there. With this in mind, I don't feel bad about my seventeen friends. Fine, sixteen.

--Russ Josephs

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[email protected] | July 2003 | Issue 40
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