Wanna be Friends?

My father, a freelance photographer, relies mostly on word of mouth to build up his clientele. Thus, early on in my youth he clued me in to what the secret of success is: networking. Ask any expert and they will all agree. These days, it's who you know, not what you know, but even given this piece of knowledge, I remain stuck in the margins of the mainstream. I have never been popular, cool, or considered "in." I have had one real significant other. Needless to say, I need to work on my networking skills.

Oh, but the agony of networking! Who do I know? How do I present myself to others? How do I effectively disguise social awkwardness and my immense lack of "people skills?" Luckily, I'm not alone. In fact, it seems that millions share my deep concern for being unable to network, and have found their savior in a friendly little place called Friendster.com.

Every normal human being hates making first impressions, that meaningless, uncomfortable small talk known as "shmoozing." Well, there's no need to "shmooze" in the cyber world. Friendster.com is a website where people are able to meet each other through their mutual contacts, all from the privacy of their bedrooms. Friendster is the best thing that has happened to your social life since AOL instant messenger, or the revolutionary idea of the "chat-room."

If you decide to join, you are given a place to publicize to the world your profile, your sexy photo (or even a fake one if you so desire), and, most importantly, your list of "friends." Your friends are essential to making the magic happen. This is the fundamental difference that separates Friendster from shameless match-making websites, whose sole purpose is to hook up random strangers. The geniuses behind Friendster recognize that the average person does not want to appear like a desperate fool looking for just anyone to cure chronic loneliness. Instead, most are likely to make relationships through friends they already have. Fully aware of this, they designed a site where users may have access to people their friends are acquainted with. In short, Friendster organizes you, your friends, and your friends' friends in the greatest game of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

I first caught the Friendster fever when a buddy from school sent me an invitation to "be his friend." The main source of Friendster's popularity comes from pressure to build your friend list. The more people you know, the more impressive you seem to the rest of the Friendster community. Suddenly anyone and everyone becomes your "friend." Remember that cute kid you were always afraid to talk to way back during summer camp? Send him an invitation -- you might be able to get to know him better! And that dorky kid who wore headgear? Might as well add him too, you never know who his friends are.

The other tool that Friendster employs to enhance your reputation is in the "testimonials" section. Here is where your loving friends may post reviews of you, which testify that you really are as hot as you claim to be. But it really doesn't matter at all what your friends comment about, just as long as a lot of people show that they like you. Someone I know has 10 testimonials. I myself have none, so I am therefore a complete loser.

Nevertheless, even complete losers can meet thousands of people. Just through the embarrassingly few number of friends (five) in my "personal network," I am connected to 90,283 other people. That is, 90,283 potential dates, friends, or one-night stands. Now imagine having 100 friends in your "personal network," which many users certainly do. The number of people you are connected with grows exponentially with each "friend" you make. After I have established myself, I may click on my friend's profiles, and then their friends', and so on. The beauty of it is that within merely a day of logging on, I have successfully "networked," without even stepping outside my front door!

It's no surprise that Friendster has gained phenomenal popularity among high school and college students, the age group most obsessed with social status and dating. Yet, I would not write the site off as simply a way to make dating less creepy. While granted it is superficial -- if not pure narcissism -- I see a strong potential in Friendster. If used creatively, Friendster can be a networking device for anyone wanting to connect with others with similar interests. Activists, for example, were among the first groups to learn how valuable email is for spreading dialogue, awareness and action among the masses. Now with Friendster, coalitions can build even more quickly and easily without the expense of time and traveling. I envision Friendster becoming an instant community for marginalized groups, artists of all genres, and serious players of dungeons and dragons.

What most people tend to forget is that there really is no such thing as a "stranger." Each and every day our lives intersect with several others, yet we barely realize that we are connected to each other through a person, an interest or an experience. Friendster is a place for these encounters to happen when they would otherwise occur out of sheer coincidence. As for curing my social awkwardness, well this just might make it worse, but at least I'll be staying in my room more often!

Nicole Hsiang is a student at Wesleyan University.

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