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Although the customer service team consists of three people, most conflict mediation and serious judgment calls are handled by Firinn. And when you're dealing with someone described as everything from "intense" to a "mad genius" to a "control freak" — albeit a "control freak" who writes "Long live healthy dissent in America!" in an event description — even some of his staunchest supporters who laud him as a visionary and a hero fear that irking him means they'd be dumped through the trapdoor into cyberspace, a significant portion of their social lives vanishing with them.
"It's like being disappeared in Stalinist Russia," says Tom Merle, who was deleted last year, along with e-mail contact with all the folks he'd met. "Like you never existed."
With the paranoid way members talk about Firinn, you'd think they were gossiping about the White Witch in Narnia. Before a recent Linkup hike at Baker Beach, one member said, "If you get on his bad side — " and another sliced a finger across his throat only half in jest.
Members trade Firinn tales at just about every event, which balloon into urban myths — egged on by the fact that most have never met him and piece together the man behind the cybercurtain from such stories and his idiosyncratic event descriptions. One particularly amusing one reads: "Please don't hassle me about small details. That just makes me hate you. Please don't ask me dumb questions like, 'So when did you start Linkup?' That would make me hate you too, probably even more."
There are firsthand tales: One guy submitted an event where he included "Tell jokes about Firinn" as one of the activities, only for that portion to be deleted by customer service before being posted. There was the time Firinn wouldn't talk to anyone at a karaoke event, and grew flustered when people diverted from the conversation topic he'd set at a dinner. One of the more entertaining tidbits to members — who are required to use their real first names in their profiles — is that Firinn and the other customer service employees write e-mails under aliases such as "George Chen." Members report one woman writing back "Dear 'George Chen,'" questioning the alter ego with sassy quotation marks, and, because of that and other behavior perceived as "obnoxious," lost her customer service privileges. Firinn says he created the aliases because he wanted a buffer from people "misusing every little thing I did or said" and to provide consistency no matter which employee was writing the letter.
Then there are the conspiracy theories: Firinn reads all the e-mails members send through the site. (Only if you use a word programmed to alert him, he says.) He sends spies to events to make sure hosts are reporting flakes. (Not true, Firinn says, but one customer service employee is a Linkup member and doesn't tell others because she fears it would interfere with people socializing with her. The potential hypocrisy of not disclosing this on a site dedicated to accountability is a discussion for another day.)
Firinn has his defenders — "He doesn't suffer fools, period; I admire him for it, frankly," says member John Donaldson — and he says anyone who doesn't like his system can join one of the Web's multitude of other socializing groups. But members want to stay at Linkup for its high-quality events, so the fear of being ousted sets in. "Not one event goes by without stories of the tyrannical control of Firinn," says another member unwilling to give his name as he walks along the coast on the recent hike. "For a guy who's not that socially adept to be running an organization like this ..." He falls silent.
Firinn scans the screen of his iMac in his immaculate apartment nestled in a generic Walnut Creek complex, where he moved seven years ago from San Francisco. He jokingly refers to the modest place as the "Worldwide Linkup Headquarters" — somewhat disappointing, really, compared to the images dancing in members' heads of Oz's Emerald Castle. Many have done the mental math, multiplying the 23,000 worldwide profiles by the $4.95 monthly membership fee, and concluded that by raking in $1.3 million a year, he must live in a suburban mansion. But the reality is that only Bay Area members with active accounts pay the fees, and so currently the site only generates approximately $65,000 before taxes to pay all three employees' salaries plus overhead.
Though Firinn projects Linkup will generate more than $250,000 in a couple of years, money is not his primary concern. Bringing people together for quality interaction comes first, and, unfortunately, that mission requires relentless pruning of those who "don't get it."
Firinn is an animated guy who oozes good intentions and a true believer's conviction with every inch of his 5-foot-9 frame balanced in geriatric orthopedic shoes. His regal posture gives away years of ballet training — one of the many subjects he says he dove into before UC Berkeley forced him to choose a major and graduate after seven years of undergraduate study. Now 51, he reads for four hours a day, and admits he cannot bear small talk. His events err on the cerebral side: discussing clichés in culture, reflecting on quotations, sharing books. His thick hair wicks up on end like a gray torch. Combined with stud earrings and his eerily intense aquamarine eyes, you can see him fitting right in at a hobbit casting call for Lord of the Rings.