Attack of the Smartasses

Friendster.com creator Jonathan Abrams wants to purge his über-hip dating site of phony profiles. But online "fakesters" are fighting back. Hilariously.

I'm sitting in a downtown San Francisco cafe with a man who won't tell me his name. Instead, he insists that I call him "Roy Batty" -- leader of the Nexus 6 replicants in Blade Runner. He says coyly that he's "in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic" and works as "a writer." Of what, he won't say.

Batty is a gaunt-looking man with serious gray-green eyes. He's probably in his early 30s. He's a coffeehouse philosopher who drops names like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and French avant-thinker Guy Debord the way some guys his age drop the names of indie rock bands. Batty doesn't want to give his real name because he believes that the concept of identity is quite elastic. Throughout history, he notes, human beings have loved to wear masks, adopting personas that were far different than their everyday ones. The malleable nature of selfhood is why he's so intrigued by Blade Runner, which, he says, he's seen more than 100 times. The Batty replicant isn't quite human, but is so close that it causes the viewer to question what it means to be truly human. Similarly, the Batty I'm drinking coffee with struggles with what it means to be "really yourself." Who you are, he says, can change from moment to moment.

"Identity is provisional," Batty insists. "It's fluid."

Friendster CEO Jonathan Abrams thought Internet 
dating was "creepy."
Paolo Vescia
Friendster CEO Jonathan Abrams thought Internet dating was "creepy."
Lisa Sebasco created a fake profile named after a 
dyke bar -- and attracted many new lesbian friends.
Anthony Pidgeon
Lisa Sebasco created a fake profile named after a dyke bar -- and attracted many new lesbian friends.

I met Roy Batty on Friendster.com, the popular matchmaking Web site that's quickly become a social phenomenon among even people who aren't single. Friendster introduces you to the friends of your friends through a big interconnected database. You register for the free site, create a personal profile with pictures and descriptions of yourself, and invite your friends to do the same. Your page is linked to their pages, and their pages are linked to their friends' pages, and so on. When you look at other people's profiles, you can see how you are connected through mutual friends. Suddenly at your fingertips is an ocean of potential friends, lovers, and networking opportunities.

That was the plan, at least.

The site has attracted legions of young creative types: DJs, artists, media people, Burning Man freaks, and other hipsters -- particularly in tech-savvy San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Not surprisingly, many of them went to great lengths to make their profiles unusual, or above-it-all and drenched in irony. Some, like Batty, took it a step further by not being themselves at all.

Batty and numerous other Friendsters routinely violate the site's user agreement by creating fictional characters as profiles instead of, or in addition to, their "real" profiles. These "fakesters" portray themselves as everything from inanimate objects like the World Trade Center to celebrities like Paris Hilton to historical forces like War (which lists its profession as "resolving disputes").

Emboldened by their masks and often preferring the weird over the normal, fakesters are turning Friendster on its ear. They link to other users they've never met in real life, flouting the site's original intent of connecting people through verifiable personal relationships. Many compete to link to as many other users as possible, so that their fictional characters function as social hubs in the Friendster network.

Though they are some of Friendster's most ardent fans -- many spend several hours a day on the site -- fakesters do everything they can to create anarchy in the system. They are not interested in finding friends through prosaic personal ads, but through a big, surreal party where Jesus, Chewbacca, and Nitrous are all on the guest list. To fakesters, phony identities don't destroy the social experience of Friendster; they enrich it.

But fakesters aren't hosting this gig. Jonathan Abrams, the 33-year-old software engineer who founded Friendster to improve his own social life, is -- and he abhors the phony profiles. He believes they diminish his site's worth as a networking tool and claims that fakesters' pictures -- often images ripped off the Web -- violate trademark law. Abrams' 10-person Sunnyvale company has begun ruthlessly deleting fakesters and plans to eventually eradicate them completely from the site.

But Roy Batty and other fakesters are putting up a fight.

They have formed the "Borg Collective" and struck back with online pranks and provocations designed to elude the censors and get Friendster officials to listen to them. They want Abrams to admit that -- like it or not -- Friendster has become much more than a dating site; it's a vast electronic community. And a community that stamps out invention, Batty's group insists, is not only fascist and boring, but also stupid.

"Why give us the tools if you don't allow us to use them?" Batty asks fervently. "Prohibition never works. [Abrams] opened Pandora's box; now he has to deal with what came out of the box."


Noodling around on Friendster can be highly addictive, and the site's growth has been phenomenal. Abrams' company claims it has 1.5 million registered users. Nielson/NetRatings, an Internet measuring firm, says Friendster had 532,000 visitors in June, its most recent statistic. Either way, that's a lot of traffic for a 5-month-old site that is still in the beta-testing phase and has done no advertising save a few promotional parties. It's almost impossible to go to a bar these days and not hear the word "Friendster" floating up from an overheard conversation. People say they can't get enough of it -- even though Friendster's servers are so overloaded that it can take an eternity to log on.

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