A new kind of buddy list

A new kind of buddy list – a descriptive article about Friendster in “The Journal News”

A new kind of buddy list
(Original publication: June 28, 2003)

Friendster.com – an online community for finding friends and making dates started with founder Jonathan Abrams and a few of his buddies. Then they told some friends. And they told some friends. And so on.

And so on.

Friendster’s membership has multiplied exponentially since its beta release in March, mostly through subscriber word of mouth.

With nearly a half-million members and a 20 percent weekly growth rate, this hip new service may be poised to surpass the Web masters of the hook-up, Match.com and Nerve.com.

But unlike those sites, Friendster trades on a simple notion that’s been functioning off-line for centuries: That the best way to meet new people is through your own friends.

Package that old-fashioned idea for an iPod generation and you’ve got the Internet’s latest addictive offering.

“It’s like crack,” laughs Hoboken resident Paige Casey, 30, a marketing manager for an academic publishing house. “I was looking at it pretty compulsively for the first few days.”

Casey joined Friendster in April, having heard about it through an email list for young professionals. She’s married, so uninterested in online romance, she invited a handful of friends to join the service with her.

Soon, the group was obsessively logging on to check out each other’s profiles. Collectively, they laughed at one pal’s photograph of choice (in a fire-engine-red wig), posted silly testimonials (“He has perfect hair”) and learned that “Just Here to Help!” is Friendster-speak for “Don’t send me any weird come-ons!”

Six weeks later, Casey was linked to more than 62,000 people, enough profiles to keep her amused for months.

“It’s good workday entertainment,” says Casey.

Some of the more witty Friendsters have substituted their own likeness for photographs of Gary Coleman, Yoda or Ralph Macchio; some pose as celebrities Johnny Knoxville and Kobe Bryant; others simply share admiration for, say, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

Friendster operates on the six-degrees-of-separation theory, though it only reaches the fourth degree. No strangers are allowed; each member’s personal network is restricted to those connected through someone that member already knows.

In other words, your friends’ friends’ friends.

Occasionally, they may already be your friends, too.

Carla McKeand, a 26-year-old human resources coordinator from Brooklyn, was pleased to find a former classmate from her Florida hometown while recently scrolling through the site.

“She’ll be in town next weekend,” she says. “I’m supposed to meet her for a drink.”

Adds McKeand: “Friendster proves my theory that the world is just one big high school.”

That’s sometimes unfortunate for those who’d rather leave old memories behind.

“An ex-boyfriend from 10 years ago sent me a message,” says Tanya Edwards, 29, an online marketing manager for a children’s’ book publisher. “It wasn’t stalker-ish but I was like, ‘Ahhhh! Go back into my past where you belong!’ ”

Yet Friendster’s creator believes that familiarity is what makes the site so appealing.

Abrams, 33, conceived the Friendster idea last year, when he became newly single and found anonymous online dating “kind of creepy.”

Then he thought, “What if there was a place that had photos of all the cute girls your friends know?”

Now, half of all Friendster members use the site to cyberdate. Abrams says members feel more comfortable using his service because there’s a sense of community that keeps members honest … most of the time.

“It’s not the full scoop on somebody,” he acknowledges. “But it’s a hell of a lot better than some weird pseudonym like ‘Cyberdude, who loves mountain climbing.’

“You can’t put up a photo that shows you with hair and 20 pounds lighter, when all your friends will see it. You can’t pull that on Friendster.”

There’s too much of the unknown associated with other online meeting spots, agrees Archie Ware of Yonkers.

“On AOL, a lot of older people IM (instant message) me,” says Ware, 19, a student at Westchester Community College. “Then I look at their profile and they’re 50 years old. I’m like, ‘Talk to you later.’ ”

On Friendster, he says, “there’s no games. If you’re lying on your profile, another person can say, ‘This is not that person.’ ”

So far, Ware hasn’t made a love connection – “I’m not really into dating” – but he has met a fellow Hacky Sack enthusiast. Further illustrating the six-degrees theory, Ware discovered that he goes to school with his new pal’s girlfriend and all three live in Yonkers.

“I like meeting new people,” he says. “I’ve started checking (Friendster) every day.”

Krich Ratanataree of Spring Valley theorizes that meeting folks on Friendster might be better than meeting in person at a party.

“When you first meet somebody, it’s always a front,” says Ratanataree, 27. “It’s human nature to make a good first impression.”

But with Friendster, “People don’t have their guard up,” he says. “It allows you to open up more.”

Abrams, who’s now running Friendster from his Sunnyvale, Calif., home with the help of five employees, hopes this enthusiasm will transfer to an updated version of Friendster that he hopes to launch before the summer’s end.

Basic membership will still be free, but there will be a monthly fee for some features (like sending a message to someone you want to date). Abrams promises that the price will be less than half of the $24.95 that Match.com charges its customers.

This new payment plan may continue to draw the lovelorn, but it could repel a core audience who wants a platonic relationship.

After all, says Paige Casey, “Do you need to pay to be wacky with your friends?”

Friends might not. We’ll see if Friendsters will.

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