By Alex Distefano
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"I've always had a tourist fantasy," says Rex, a singer in a New York City electroclash band. He recently had the opportunity to live out his fetish through Friendster.com, an online community for making friends and finding dates.
"He was no one I knew, a tourist who was in town for a few days," the vocalist continues. "I was flattered and weirdly curious." The traveler invited Rex (as he would like to be called) out on a date. "Under 99 percent of these circumstances I would have stayed away, but I happened to think he was cute. We got together for coffee. We met again later that night for a date and hooked up. It was really hota hot rendezvous."
Just as Napster exploded in popularity a few years ago, Friendster is now making its own climb to Internet stardom. By May, just three months after its beta release, the site had grown to over 300,000 users.
In practice, Friendster is far different from its file-sharing cousin. It is completely Web-based, with no peer-to-peer application to download, and the "sharing" is purely metaphorical. But it is expanding for the same reason Napster didmembers have an interest in making it more popular, because that means there's more to trade. While similar new services like Ryze.org and LinkedIn.com help people swap business contacts, Friendster is one of the few places that help you swap your friends.
Friendster works on the same principle as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where you find connections between movie stars. People who join post profiles of themselves including photos, interests, favorite books, TV shows, and movies. Browse someone's profileanyone within three degrees of separation is fair gameand you also see thumbnail pictures of their friends. If one looks interesting, you can click it for a full profile. With another click you can send a message, though the site safeguards your e-mail address to thwart unwanted come-ons.
Not strictly a dating service, Friendster has built its success on its casual feel. There are no cupids or hearts on the site, nothing to indicate it's anything but a tool for connecting with friends. But although you could use it to meet a fellow Scrabble aficionado or an ultimate Frisbee partner, the site ends up being largely about dating. "For every one user of online dating services, there are probably 10 people who would use Friendster because they're more comfortable with the approach," says company founder Jonathan Abrams. "Friendster is less creepy. It's a little more like real life."
Harris Danow, a development assistant at Miramax, has used online personals services but prefers Friendster. "It isn't threatening, like dating sites. It's called Friendster, not 'Fuckster' or 'Makeoutster,' " he says. "It's like the kiddie pool of online dating." Harris has been contacted by several women through his online profile and went out with one. "I didn't think of it as a place for making dates, but women started contacting me. On Friendster people can check out your credentials, meaning that someone can ask your friend, 'What's the deal with this person?' It keeps you on your best behavior. You couldn't get away with meeting someone on Friendster, sleeping with her, and never calling her back. There's a net behind you."
Friendster is beginning to impact real-life socializing in intriguing ways. "It's interesting that now, when I go out to social gatherings, it seems as if just about everyone is on Friendster," says James Meetze, a publisher from Oakland, California. "The other night I was at an art opening when a girl approached me and said, 'I've seen you on the Internet.' I made the connection that she had recently sent me a message on Friendster about liking to eat kittens. I said, 'Oh, right, you're the kitten eater, please stay away from my kittens.' "
The site is emerging as a means to check out would-be mates. Lauryn Siegel, an unemployed production office manager in New York, spends much of her newfound free time browsing the service. "Friendster is the new Googling. It lets you find out more about a person, to put them in context."
This narrowing of social groups has created its share of awkward online moments. Lauryn found an old flame in her circle of friends, one she didn't want to rekindle. "I didn't think I would ever lay eyes on this person again. Maybe it's not so surprising. We're both from Northern California, both into music. . . . Everyone accepts that it's a small world, but Friendster makes it a lot more apparent."
Rex, the Friendster user with the tourist fantasy, also hints that there was something unsavory about his experience. "It was a successful one-night stand," he says, but the hookup came with an element of limbo and a touch of Velcro. "He's not in New York, but we are still in touch because of the way we met. We're Friendsters now."
The lack of anonymity can be uncomfortable, but it fuels the site. Once people join, they can invite friends, who can then invite still other friends. Jonathan Ringen, an assistant editor at Metropolis, is a new member. "I signed on to Friendster and after some quick browsing discovered that everybody I know is on this thing," he says. "I'm shocked that it took me this long to get an invitation!" Jonathan had unwittingly fallen victim to a new phenomenonthe virtual snub.