No Linkup for You!

In the world of online community, one authoritative man can dictate your social life

Firinn Taisdeal will tell you straight up: "It's tough being around me. No secret there." Yes, his relationships have been volatile: His siblings have stonewalled him for more than a decade, and his ex-girlfriend from high school has counted on a turbulent cycle of fiery battles and uneasy peace for the past 30 years. And then there's his friend who silently moans "Aww, shit" as he deletes an e-mail from Firinn too blistering to finish, wondering what he did this time to get in the doghouse, and how long it will take to be let out.

Yet in one of what Firinn calls those "beautiful ironies" of the universe, one that owes a lot to how the online galaxy enables anyone to reinvent himself as king of his own domain, he now acts as the monitor and final arbiter (a virtual Judge Judy, if you will) of the behavior of 23,000 adults worldwide – nearly 7,000 of them here in the Bay Area. They've signed up for his social networking Web site, Linkup Central, and have become part of his quest to enforce accountability in a random world of flakes.

So on a recent night over sushi in a restaurant across from San Francisco City Hall, the man with a record of turbulent relationships discussed how to make people behave better with four Linkup devotees. (He had been hoping for more guests, but one attendee speculated that people are "intimidated by Firinn.")

Jen Siska
Taisdeal says heís gotten used to criticisms about Linkupís accountability system.
Firinn Taisdeal founded Linkup Central with the idea of using computers to get people away from them.
Jen Siska
Firinn Taisdeal founded Linkup Central with the idea of using computers to get people away from them.

One woman questioned what she should have done when a cyclist with a major attitude ruined a ride she organized. Give her two choices, Firinn advised: Shape up or leave. The same woman lamented that people also won't stop jabbering on her hikes. Name it a "silent hike of appreciation," he says — that'll weed out the blabbermouths.

Firinn suggests they create a guide on how to be a good guest. "This will trigger some discussion ..."

"And the accusations of paternalism," one man interjects. "Again."

"Oh, I know!" Firinn says. "And the same age-old accusations of paternalism. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Boy, that stuff rolls off my back now."

Firinn has gotten used to the criticism because it turns out that labeling people's behavior unacceptable in the Wild West of Web-initiated socializing makes you a lot of enemies. Call him "paternalistic," call him Firinn der Führer — one of the more inventive titles those he's deemed unworthy have come up with — but the accusations certainly aren't going to halt his social experiment.

Linkup Central is a variation on sites such as Meetup, Urban Diversion, and MEETin that focus on luring people away from the glowing seduction of their computer screens to actually meet in the flesh. Any Linkup member can create an event — be it a bonfire on Ocean Beach, dinner and a movie, or a Beatles sing-along at Fort Mason. And any member can sign up: the divorcée whose social circle dissolved along with her marriage, the work-from-home consultant who otherwise would never leave, the nurse sick of camping with only her dog.

Yet on the other social sites, people can RSVP and attend or not attend with no problem. But Firinn promotes a different behavior in an overcommitted era in which flaking is only a text message away.

He demands you actually show up.

It's called accountability, and Firinn says society is plagued by the lack of it. Memoirists fabricate stories. Politicians invent reasons for war. Any Joe Schmoe can become Don Juan in a personal ad. And Firinn says the Internet has only sped the decline of integrity as people assume fake screen names and bash others at will. (Or defend their bosses in secret, like Mayor Gavin Newsom's ex-spokesman Peter Ragone.)

So Firinn has dubbed himself a social software entrepreneur. He has programmed Linkup to punish flaky behavior like last-minute cancellations, no-shows, and lame excuses. Event hosts report the offending behavior, and transgressions plummet members' ratings from a top score of 100 down toward zero, making it harder to sign up for future events, since hosts set minimum ratings guests must have in order to RSVP.

Many members rave that the accountability system pushes Linkup a step above social sites many times its size that are popular in this wired city. Hosts can better plan for more intimate events when they know everyone will attend. Flakes either shape up or become frustrated and leave, which helps maintain a high level of commitment among members.

"I don't see how it could be much better," member Jim Gross says. "You never have a problem with people."

The site is growing at the slow yet steady rate Firinn desires in order to maintain the membership quality. He has expanded to include 23 U.S. cities and seven more worldwide, yet none are nearly as active as the San Francisco chapter, with some 175 events a month.

But even as members praise, or at least grudgingly accept, the accountability system as the engine of Linkup's momentum, many question the arguably extreme tactics of the man at the helm.

The cold math of the accountability system is only a part of the way behavior is monitored (although the math, too, is subject to whether hosts rat on flaky behavior). Linkup customer service also kicks off the people whom it deems do "not fit" into Linkup culture, as Firinn puts it. The site's terms of service allude to how subjective a call that can be: "Linkup Central may, with or without cause, immediately terminate your ... account ... without prior notice." Roughly 1,200 people have been booted since the site's creation in 2003 — not counting the one in four applicants whose profiles are rejected in the first place — with seldom a chance to appeal.

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