My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Salon on Fakesters

Faking out Friendster is a new Salon article about the fake characters that emerge on Friendster. It’s a fun new slant, and well written. [Of course, i’ve loved Katharine Mieszkowski ever since she wrote that fabulous article on Netochka Nezvanova] In the article, Katherine quoted me in reference to the passing fake characters that i found after friends of mine created one.

I disagree with Jonathan’s sentiment that fake characters will go away naturally. [Well, when/if they go away, so will a huge chunk of *real* structure.] I do agree that “Some people find it amusing, but some find it annoying.” The trick is how to help both populations coexist as they do in most places in reality. I do agree that it’s only a fraction of the network that has created fake characters, but i would also argue that much of this fraction is what made it get the eye of the press and of the more mainstream culture. Remember Hush Puppies? Trendsetters (mavens) are often far outside of the mainstream, yet they drive the mainstream’s behavior.

Jonathan argues: “A small percentage of people don’t really get the point. The point is not to add a ton of people you don’t know.” What he doesn’t realize is that the problem is far more nuanced than that. How well must you know someone before adding them? People often add people to show social face. People add Friendsters because they recognize the person. Perhaps its not the point, but a real social network is not articulated; articulating it clouds everything from the getgo.

Additionally, people don’t just create fake characters for fun; some create them to connect real-life groups of people who are affiliated but not necessarily friends. For example, creating “the Lex” is creating a character that represents everything that goes to the Lexington Bar. Aren’t friends of the Lex perhaps people that other Lex members want to date?


Faking out Friendster
A booming online service for connecting people takes up arms against a sea of “fakesters” who’d rather role-play than network.

– – – – – – – – – – – –
By Katharine Mieszkowski

Aug. 14, 2003 | For a gigantic deep sea creature only seen by humans when it’s dead or dying, the Giant Squid has a lot friends on Friendster. Last Friday, before his account was suspended, Giant Squid had 335 “friendsters.”

This particular giant squid is one of several specimens of his rare and storied species found on the site. He lists his favorite music as the “wailing of damned souls” and his favorite movie as “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Among the squid’s interests: “capsizing ships, eating human flesh, destroying corporate culture and mocking Jon Abrams.”

Since launching the beta version of the community site in March 2003, Jonathan Abrams, 33, founder and CEO of Friendster, has built a network of 1.5 million friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.

Like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” with your own universe of pals, acquaintances and confidantes, Friendster brings networks that already exist in the real world to the Web. Members post profiles of themselves and then ping their friends on the system to link profiles. Friends invite each other to join, which is one reason the site has grown so fast, infecting social groups and hopscotching between them, bringing new cliques on board.

Friendster quickly entered into a certain urbane vernacular — “are you on Friendster?” — and inspired no fewer than four online parodies, plus an infographic in the Onion. But as the site, which is currently free to use, has grown, some friendsters have taken it in directions the founder doesn’t like.

Giant Squid is not alone: Among the “Fakesters” who’ve signed up for Friendster are Jackalope, God, Beer, Drunk Squirrel, Hippie Jesus, Malcolm X and more than a dozen Homer Simpsons. Just like regular users, they post their photos, blab on bulletin boards and collect friends like so many baseball cards. Some, staying in character, even write gushing testimonials about their friends: What higher endorsement could there be than a few complimentary words from Homer himself? “Better than a cold can of Duff beer … ”

But while it may be amusing to invite God himself into your pool of friends and get back the message, “God is now your friend,” the founder of the site says that such chicanery only distorts his system.

“Fake profiles really defeats the whole point of Friendster,” says entrepreneur Abrams, interviewed by cellphone as he waited to catch a plane in Los Angeles. “Some people find it amusing, but some find it annoying. And it doesn’t really serve a legitimate purpose. The whole point of Friendster is to see how you’re connected to people through your friends,” he says.

When hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people link themselves to a popular fakester, it links up groups who have no association with each other but their mutual friendship with God or Giant Squid. While this promiscuous linking madly expands peoples’ networks, it defeats what Abrams sees as the point of the site he’s created: “If people are randomly connecting to these fake profiles, I guess it’s funny, but it’s not really that useful. We’re hiring some customer support people, and we’re going to get rid of all that stuff,” he says.

But some of Friendster’s members maintain that that site is so popular because of the creative and unexpected ways its early inhabitants used it. They charge that squelching all that ambient zaniness will just kill what’s great about it.

“The bigger your network is, the more people you can meet. The whole point is that you want more people in your network,” says Michelle Cohen, a Web producer for iVillage, who counts Drunk Squirrel among her friendsters. “It’s not defeating the purpose, it’s just creating more opportunity for networking and organic community-building. In a way, I think that the people have spoken deciding what the purpose is. That’s why there are so many people on it.”

“The fake characters really motivated people. It became really goofy and fun. You wanted to see what would be new,” says Danah Boyd, a graduate student in U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems, who runs the Connected Selves blog. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that Jonathan likes the flavor that it’s given the system.”

She sees the trouble with fakesters as part of the clash between the system’s early adopters and the more mainstream audience that its creator hopes to appeal to as he works to turn it into an online dating business, not just a phenom: “He hasn’t figured out how to build a model to allow the Burning Man people to have a play toy, and allow the Match.com people to feel safe.”

But Abrams argues that it’s really just a small percentage of the overall users who create or make friends with fakesters. “I think that in the long run people will get over the silly fad of fake profiles and use Friendster for more meaningful things,” he says. “There are still a lot of ways you can show creativity on the site without putting Homer Simpson on it. I actually don’t think it’s very creative to steal someone’s copyrighted material and put it up on Friendster.”

The coming fakester extermination has by all accounts already started, with fakester pictures — some of them copyrighted — and sometimes whole profiles being deleted without any prior notice to their creators. This, unsurprisingly, has the fakesters in a virtual froth.

On his profile, before his account was suspended, the Giant Squid extorted others to also create fake profiles in protest. He fulminates in the “about me” section of his page: “I exist to torment Jon Abrams, CEO of Friendster, as he has seen fit to not allow those with a sense of humor to participate in his smug little plan to burn through investor funding and have nothing to show for it. What kind of person creates a revenue model that involves the deliberate exclusion of potential customers? Many of our Fakester brethren have already been deleted … and many more will follow. Whether real or imaginary, we ARE your friends, and we exist to make you laugh, think and question reality (and other assumed paradigms.) Fight the power!”

But even as Friendster’s founder pledges to crush the fakester insurrection, it’s unclear how successful the still small company can be at playing whack-a-mole with those members of its ever-growing network who want to fool around. While the site has plans to charge for members to connect with their friends’ friends, Abrams says it does not plan to charge just to create a profile on the site. With membership free, and no need to drop a credit card number just to join, any scheme to eliminate fakesters through human intervention seems doomed to always being one step behind of the most determined rebels. There’s simply nothing to stop a squelched Giant Squid from instantly rejoining again in another guise.

An added complication: Some fakesters go to great lengths to appear real. According to Boyd from the Connected Selves blog, one group of guys invented a fake woman whose profile now lives on Friendster, so that this phantom miss could post flattering testimonials about them and introduce them to women on the system who they’re interested in. Real or fake? Who can tell the difference?

Abrams says that one tool for rooting out fakesters and real people who distort the system’s organizational principle by claiming anyone who will have them as a friend is the number of friendsters in your network. Link to more than 200, and you’ll raise Abrams’ suspicions that you’re a mad friendster collector, claiming connections to people you’ve never met in a virtual popularity contest.

Some fakesters whose profiles have already had their pictures or accounts deleted by their unhappy host haven’t bothered to replace them. There’s a nascent Web site for Fallen Friendsters, which invites exiles to post their profiles. Some have simply packed up their fakery and decreed that “The Golden Age of Friendster is Over,” as Adam Dugas, 32, a Brooklyn singer, wrote in an e-mail message that got picked up on blogs like Sick Candy.

Dugas, whose fake identities on Friendster until recently included the Blair Witch, says that the system peaked among his group of friends around July 4: “It was just like this weird creative outlet where people were making these fake identities around these characters, writing these insane testimonials all in character, and creating this whole little world of fake people who only lived in this Friendster. When they started cutting out the fictional people and fakesters, it put a weird damper on what was making it fun and sort of goofy.”

Abrams sees the fuss as part of the growing pains of a new service that has expanded quickly: “Since we’re new, people are still pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can get away with. I think every service kind of goes through this. A small percentage of people don’t really get the point. The point is not to add a ton of people you don’t know. If you want to message random people you could do that on any site.”

But Dugas, who sings mash-up medleys ranging from Cole Porter to Nirvana and Peggy Lee, contends, “If you create something and you put it out there, whatever it is, whether is a piece of software or a song, you can’t force someone to experience it the way that you want.”

Given how fast Friendster has grown, it’s likely to rocket onward. But some of its very early adopters already talk about it like it’s a lost world of wonders.

“Everyone feels that somehow the end is nigh,” says Cohen. “But it was a great ride, while it lasted, definitely the biggest and fastest-spreading street-level social meme in my cyber-lifetime.”

Others think that between e-mail, instant messaging, MeetUps, Evite, Classmates.com and now Friendster, there’s entirely too much connecting with random people already happening online, thanks.

In blogger Greg Storey’s misanthropic fantasy parody of Friendster, Introvertster, your little virtual friend would help you keep your friends and the friends of your friends away: “Imagine being able to use the Internet and never getting any kind of instant message out of the blue, or invites to go to party,” he says. “People would just leave you alone, or actually Introvertster would just magically get in the way, kind of like your own doorman.”

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17 comments to Salon on Fakesters

  • quotes by me in salon

    [from the connected selves blog] Faking out Friendster is a new Salon article about the fake characters that emerge on…

  • Social networks got game

    A use policy like being required use to one’s “real identity” practically invites interpretation if it can’t be so strictly enforced. And, as soon as someone proves that the game works without this rule (let alone that it is still or even more fun without

  • This year’s HotOrNot, why bother giving it so much oxygen?

  • What Abrams wants is to bridge the gap between “real life” and cyber-representations. On Friendster, unlike being on Usenet or other message boards, you’re not supposed to have a handle. The idea is that a real life network will encourage someone to be “himself” and not resort to some anonymous “persona”. He fails to understand that fake personae are personal expressions. “Junkyard Dog” and “drugfreebee” and even “Phoebe Cates’ tits” are expressions of personality, like ’em or not.

    I understand the toll Fakesters take on the network, but the extermination of Friendsters is really putting a damper on my fun!

    (Obligatory self-promotion: I posted something on weird cross-over Friendster interactions. Drop by and check it out.)

  • In LISspeak: Abrams misses that his system has been improved by another whole dimension of (meta?)data. If I know Sam, that’s not only a connection to Sam, but it’s also information about me, and even about my profile itself. For example, if Frank knows Sam, and knows that Sam really hates the NRA, it might add another level in Frank’s mind to my hypothetical listing of “Charlton Heston” under “who’d you like to meet.” Maybe it means that I’m prone to dark humor, or a psychopath, or just have friends I hugely disagree with.

    If I’m linked to Margot Tenenbaum, a fictional character from the Royal Tenenbaums, that tells people, well, *something* about me that clearly the profile fields aren’t able to capture. It actually improves the quality of the data available on a given person, even though I can’t call Margot Tenenbaum and ask her about her other friend Gene, and whether he’s my type. It doesn’t matter.

  • Izel

    Fakesters just create bit rot. The design of the system is such that accurate representations of real people are expected to link to accurate represesentations of other real people that they personally know, so that it makes sense when someone vouches for someone else prior to a friendship / dating / whatever arrangement. Fakesters, as well as people just adding random online acquaintances, both take away from this objective, tarnishing the safety net aspect that differentiates Friendster from match.com etc.

    This is not to say that meta-Friendsters cannot have a place on the system. They can, as long as their profiles are properly marked up. I would propose a system of nodes (nodes being specific kinds of profiles) wherein each node is explicitly labelled as a friendster, a placester, a conceptster, a celebrityster, or a whateverster. In fact, I can see this paradigm generalize to interests / movies / music / books / etc. so that a person’t profile consists entirely of links to other nodes, except for the essay questions.

    Nifty.

  • An acquaintance also points out that under the current set-up, there are people in one’s network that one wouldn’t want. Offline, people already have issues with “I’m friends with so-and-so, but he/she’s friends with X, whom I can’t stand.” Friendster should allow people to ignore nodes.

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • Last 100 posts

    (Trying out a new feature on kottke.org today in which I revisit the last 100 or so posts — about 2-3 weeks worth — and follow up on some of them. We’ll see how it goes.) Ken Jennings is still 0wn1ng Jeopardy. He’s won 28 straight games and $920,960….

  • What Does a Connection Mean in a Social Network?

    Peter Caupta IV has a lot to say about bi and uni directional relationships. BTW I hereby nominate Peter to help create the OpenEvents movement. Email is Dead. IM is the future. RSS is the future. Social Networks are Useless. I’ve been hearing all thes…

  • What Does a Connection Mean in a Social Network?

    Peter Caupta IV has a lot to say about bi and uni directional relationships. BTW I hereby nominate Peter to help create the OpenEvents movement. Email is Dead. IM is the future. RSS is the future. Social Networks are Useless. I’ve been hearing all thes…

  • What Does a Connection Mean in a Social Network?

    Peter Caupta IV has a lot to say about bi and uni directional relationships. BTW I hereby nominate Peter to help create the OpenEvents movement. Email is Dead. IM is the future. RSS is the future. Social Networks are Useless. I’ve been hearing all thes…

  • What Does a Connection Mean in a Social Network?

    Peter Caupta IV has a lot to say about bi and uni directional relationships. BTW I hereby nominate Peter to help create the OpenEvents movement. Email is Dead. IM is the future. RSS is the future. Social Networks are Useless. I’ve been hearing all thes…