Register Saturday | June 23 | 2018

Let the Internet be Fun Again!

How Friendster is unwiring social networks

Friendster keeps getting creepier. The free Internet service, which links personal profiles together into its own online social web, started out by allowing you to “bookmark” strangers in order to let them know that somebody was checking them out. Now they’ve introduced a feature where you can track whohas been looking at your fabulous profile. More than ever, the allure of Friendster is that you can now be a creepy stalker without actually being a creepy stalker.

After all, who hasn’t spent an evening at home (or an afternoon at work) searching for past loves and crushes? Or looking longingly at the friends in your network that you haven’t yet boned? Or looking at the ones you’ve boned but that you haven’t boned lately? Or that you’ve boned but were too drunk to remember? Or nearly boned but then passed out? Or boned for a few weeks and then got in a fight about muffins and decided not to bone anymore? Or never boned but always wanted to and ten years passed by and now you want to see if they’re fat?

Though I’ve dallied a little, I’ve never really been a Friendster person. Updating profiles, leaving testimonials, enduring the consistent pressure to be a clever bastard—it’s just too much to keep up with. My stalking has been limited to Google: I’ve googled co-workers, my girlfriend, friends, family and, of course, myself. I liken the phenomenon to my cat mewing for attention whenever I walk in the door—she needs affirmation of her existence. Such is Google, such is MySpace, such is Friendster.

When Friendster was acquired by IAC/InterActiveCorp, it became the Domino’s Pizza of the Internet. Domino’s is famous for taking something as reliable and common as pizza and turning it into a profit-driven, Kafkaesque version of itself. But frankly, there’s only so much you can do to a pizza before it is no longer a pizza. For example, I like Philly cheese steaks and I like pizza, but I don’t need to have them at the exact same time. I really think someone needs to take the rap for Philly-cheese-steak pizza because it’s nasty. When executives take over a pizza plant, they forget that pizza is something people enjoy. Instead, they think of pizza as a product and people as consumers and attempt to balance out the formula. They want to make the pizza “better,” and by that of course I mean cost-efficient enough that executives can justify taking two weeks of vacation.

Corporations often gloss over the start-up spirit and objectives of such an enterprise when they purchase a start-up like Friendster and begin to turn it into some sort of monster. First, they isolate the formula. Once the formula has been isolated, the product can be replicated. Once the product can be replicated, it needs to be upgraded. The problem is that upgrades aren’t always what’s best for a product. Pong is still as great as it ever was and maybe Ping is a little better, but at its core it’s still Pong. Upgrades should increase a service’s efficiency. Gmail is a solid example of this—not only do you get tons of space, but now it automatically saves your messages as you write them. On the other end, look to Microsoft Office for near-perfect examples of useless upgrades, of how to “improve” a product without actually doing anything to it. Adding a feature on Friendster such as being able to see who’s viewed your profile might make sense, but only to the kinds of people that like to fuck up a pizza.

When Friendster first came around, all of my early-adopter friends leapt at it and had a blast. As time went on, more people became connected and it created a strange network wherein you could find people you might have otherwise lost contact with entirely—maybe you wanted to add them as your “friend” or maybe you just wanted to know they were out there. But as Friendster gradually evolves into uselessness, I find myself at odds with the whole thing. It has reached a saturation point where I’ve now come back into contact with old, old, old friends—some of whom I’d prefer not to be friends with anymore—as well as others that I thought had faded away. Even though I’ve now lapsed into a Friendster coma, people keep tracking me down on it. Maybe they’re in Montana going back to school or moving across the country on some fool’s errand, but they’ve found an outlet and a means to keep their loved ones close. For better or worse, the service has steadily begun to instill its hooks into the Internet.

And now, with the addition of a blog feature to Friendster, I can read about the ins-and-outs of people’s lives who would never in a million years start a blog if they thought that they’d have to compete with Nick Denton and his howling commandos. On Friendster however, one needn’t worry about this level of competition; the floodgates have opened.

I know people who actually make money from their blogs, but they don’t really seem to enjoy having one. When people first began writing about their lives for all of us internauts to see, it was out of armchair-techie joy. “That’s all it takes? Why, I could do that!” And it was fun. And it was voyeuristic. And then, once all the cliques and competition began to form, it just didn’t seem to be so enjoyable anymore.

As anyone can tell you, blogs have changed. I had dinner with my uncle a few weeks ago and, somewhere into our second bottle of wine, he leaned over and whispered to me, “What’s a blog?” I scraped around for an answer and came up with “a blog is a personal website with writing devoted to your life, your hobbies, or whatever it is people in New York who write for magazines are doing.” This wasn’t entirely helpful. He had already determined a blog to be anything that comes up on a Google search that doesn’t sell Glenn Gould CDs, but does offer unsolicited opinions about his œuvre. He was amazed to learn that some people can make money from blogging and, as a point of fact, thought that was cool.

I’m not going to argue against writers being paid for their writing, and I’m not defending Friendster—I think it sucks. I think it’s growing in ways that are detrimental to itself and to us. But as it grows, it pulls in people you might not have expected—someday my mom will want to be my Friendster. I love my mom but goddammit, let me stalk that guy in high school who used to shove me into my locker—I want to see if he’s bald. And please, let the Internet be fun again.

Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.