Here's how Friendster works: One day, you get an e-mail notifying you that you've been invited to join so-and-so's online friend network, where you can meet so-and-so's other friends. The Web site won't allow you to read about people with whom you share no connection. You can add those people as friends, but "only if you really are friends." You establish your own profile, on which you state whether you're looking for a friend, an activity partner, someone to date or a serious relationship. The other option is "just here to help" -- meaning either that you are trying not to insult the person who invited you or that you just want to exchange banter with people you already know. People write "testimonials" for one another, which pile up below each profile. The aesthetic appeal of my ass has, in this way, been confirmed by a gay, male art curator -- the best thing yet to come of my joining Friendster.
When my stylish smut-writer friend from New York first invited me to join, I didn't even think about it. Friendster struck me as the dumbest thing since American Idol. But then the second person who invited me -- an aficionado of obscure electronic music -- told me it wasn't about making friends; rather, it was about trying to have the most friends! So it's an online clique? No, explained another pal as we were being shooed away from Jilly's at closing time. Through friends of friends of friends, you can hook up again with people you lost touch with years ago.
My friends' enthusiasm seemed so misplaced. It was as if they were lab rats psyched to find out whether saccharin caused cancer. Certain that I was being manipulated by a market researcher, I finally shook the devil's hand.
Soon I stopped logging on just to see who I could find. I started checking to see if I had any new friend requests or new testimonials. I started writing testimonials for people, spurred on by the nice -- and true! true! -- things others said about them. Four months later, I am connected to 450,266 people. Among them are Adolf Hitler, Homer Simpson and Weed. The first would kill me, the second would eat all my food and the third would make me a paranoid wreck -- under the right circumstances. The fake-people-on-Friendster phenomenon has local relevance, too, with suspicious-looking profiles of local and nonlocal celebrities taunting fans and groupies of all kinds. The testimonials for celebrities are really lighthearted conversations about art, music, politics, whatever. University of Missouri-Columbia basketball coach Quin Snyder is listed as a user, leaving Laura Burkhalter -- an interior designer and MU fan -- skeptical. "I can't even tell who's real and who's fake anymore," she laments. Even though she suspects it's not really Snyder, she's considering sending him a message about all the trouble he's in for supposedly paying his athletes. Just to get it off her chest.
I noticed that Señor Oz, a DJ who spins at Jilly's every Thursday night, had a Friendster profile, so I sent him a message asking what he was doing there. "Friendster should be a great topic for discourse," he replied. "I started using it against my own high and mighty judgment, but it's easy and free, so I'm slowly using it more. " His next message came through with the subject "Trendster: Friendster!" He wrote, "I think it is a barometer of Kansas City's zeitgeist awareness as far as how quickly this community becomes aware of and takes advantage of 'the knewest and the trendiest it thing.'" Then, noting the high volume of Lawrence residents on Friendster, he proclaimed the hip college town to be "Little Williamsburg," comparing it to the beautiful old Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn that down-and-out artists in their twenties began flooding in the mid-'90s, until it could be called "Whitehipstersburg."
In fact, users are on Friendster not just as other people but also as places (such as Williamsburg, which lists "gentrification" among its interests) and as things (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Someone has entered a profile for Kansas City, Missouri (that's first name Kansas City, last name Missouri), though Kansas City, Kansas, has not been invited to participate. Lawrence is well-spoken-for, with almost twice the number of Friendsters as claimed by Kansas City. More people live in Kansas City, by far, but who has more hipsters? More scenesters? More punk bands? Larrytown, that's who. Lawrence-the-Friendster wants to meet "College kids that have never had credit cards before; drunken frat boys who keep bars like Fatso's and Brothers up and running; old hippies with new money; anyone who can hook me up with some Mary Jane; budding artists, musicians, or just plain posers. Punk rock, more punk rock."
As far as I can tell, Kansas City, Lawrence and St. Louis are the only cities in the bistate area on Friendster. Ever the hardcore Kansas City fan, I hoped to find out which had more friendsters, Kansas City or St. Louis. But unconnected to St. Louis as I was, I couldn't just read St. Louis' profile. My only recourse was to add St. Louis as my friend -- but when the "continue only if you really are friends with St. Louis " warning came up on my screen, I couldn't bring myself to click "OK," even for the sake of journalism. My integrity was on the line. So, regretfully, I can only share my hunch that Kansas City is cooler. I bet none of St. Louis' friendsters like good bands or list "anything by David Sedaris" in the field for favorite books. Losers.
Has the site enhanced Oz's experience of real-life Kansas City? Not really. Most of his friends are luddites, he says, and wouldn't join if their street cred depended on it.
But Jaimie Warren, an artist who organizes music and art shows as part of the Your Face collective, announced a call for entries for the We're Desperater wearable-art show using the Friendster bulletin board. It got a good response, she says. "The bulletin is a great way to network and let people know when you have an opportunity for them or let them in on something they might be really interested in," she says.
The bulletin board on Friendster can become as cluttered as those in midtown coffee shops. Friendsters inform one another about karaoke nights, plays, art openings and movie screenings. Chucky Lou, fictional cross-dressing woodchuck and mascot of the Chucky Lou AV Club, has a profile. Besides including a myth of Chucky Lous origins (including a chicken-wire cage and a hyperactive raccoon named Diggy), the profile reads, For fun, I organize a monthly midnight tribute to the weird world of strange movies. Chucky Lou hopes to meet people with six dollars who are free on the first Saturday of every month at midnight. Subtle little rodent!
Chuck Klosterman, writing in Esquire, suggests that the word Friendster is a bizarre confluence of the words friend and monster. I suggest instead a coupling of friend and hipster, but I agree with Klosterman on one point. "I am certain that the selection of the word Friendster is the single biggest key to its success," he writes, "because eventually you need to join Friendster just to keep referencing it in conversation."
A few hours before the November 15 Burly-Q Girly Crew performance, I sat outside a Westport hair salon where a friend was spinning lounge records (yes, in a hair salon), and everyone was trying to decide whether to attend the show. I overheard a young woman make an argument that seemed to win over her companion. "Come on," she cried. "All the Friendsters will be there!" Her proclamation was loud and blatantly sarcastic; as is the case with almost everyone on Friendster, she couldn't mention the site without dousing her tone in the requisite cynicism.
But if Friendster connections are getting people out and about in the West Bottoms on a Saturday night, who can knock the site? Besides, reading the more creative profiles is just plain fun. Ssion frontman Cody Critcheloe goes by "Eagle Fucker" on his personal profile. "A+ for having a heavy-petting zoo onstage," writes one of Eagle Fucker's friends in a testimonial. "Ssion stretches the Kansas City Code of Decency wider than a fifty-eight-year-old whore." Such turns of phrase are their own rewards.