No Linkup for You!

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

At the same time, he saw how technology could bring out personal initiative while he volunteered for the Howard Dean presidential campaign, which allowed volunteers to organize campaign events online. Could that work in the social arena?

Firinn would soon see. His girlfriend urged him to attend a lunch club, but he was so annoyed by the disorganization and onerous sign-up process of one on Craigslist that he created his own, the Bay Area Lunch Club, in 2003. After about six months, members of the club started to host their own events beyond midday meals.

But the club's momentum hit an obstacle. One host told Firinn how embarrassed she'd been when only three people showed up for a reservation for 12 at Nordstrom. Firinn says people flaking had never particularly bothered him — a friend who once forgot to take him to the airport begs to differ — but the woman's complaint hit a nerve.

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.

"She was never going to try again," Firinn says, going into tears as he recounts the story. "She had given up. ... She was trying to fight back her tears." (The woman, Karla Dayton of Alameda, says she's honored he took her seriously, but politely adds that she wasn't that upset: "Maybe he's the emotional one.")

Firinn thought about the lessons gleaned from Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling books, The Tipping Point and Blink. People respond to cues that indicate the permitted behavior in any environment. Firinn had already programmed his site to urge good behavior; it corrected sloppy online grammar, changing "tonite" to "tonight" and shrinking multiple exclamation points to one. Swearing, spamming, and cruising were regulated.

In addition, Firinn learned from Gladwell's books that you can judge a lot about a person's character from the smallest of indicators. If those who jump subway turnstiles are more likely to have a criminal history, Firinn figured something as complex as a person's integrity could be judged by something as simple as whether they could keep a commitment.

Enter the accountability system.

As Firinn kicked off the first batches of flakes, mutiny broke out. The condemned logged onto Craigslist and spewed vitriol against him. At first, Firinn worried he had overreached. But as the so-called flakes and other transgressors were banished, Linkup hosts found their efforts wouldn't be squandered. Word got out, and Linkup took off. A patent for the accountability system is pending.

"To me, it is a phoenix type of story ... or taking what's broken in his past and making something good out of it," Simpkins says. "He had a difficult time making relationships, keeping relationships ... and now he's in the business of providing relationships."

Firinn applies the idea that small instances demonstrate a person's character in other ways, and he's always looking for clues, what he calls "social information." One such method is how members respond to "push back." Flipping the customer-is-always-right mantra, Linkup customer service often responds by challenging members. Hosting privileges are axed for hosts about whom guests have complained, to see whether they'll accept the punishment or go ape. Customer service will also sternly challenge people's interpretations of a situation if they write in with problems. Firinn notices the guilty tend to go silent, and the reasonable won't continue fighting. Many of these interactions are noted in the members' administrative files.

"If they blow up at us, it's all over," Firinn says. "I'm subtly trying to get the word out to the group that it's not good to be unreasonable with customer service."

Many claim customer service itself is the unreasonable one, going for the jugular when a slap on the wrist would do. One e-mail kicked out a woman for using a fake profession, adding a stinger at the end: "We also had to deal previously with a serious complaint about your being so drunk at your own event that you could not get home by yourself." (To avoid conflict, people are no longer told that they have been kicked out. The banished simply discover they can no longer log in.)

Many members applaud Firinn for weeding out the troublemakers. Michelle Heathman of Oakland said she wrote that a man had joined Linkup whom she considered a stalker. Firinn called her back in minutes and blocked the man from the system: "Firinn went from being this scary Oz to 'Michelle, what do we do to help you?'" she recalls. She is now a staunch Firinn defender.

Firinn says his position as, he jokes, "hopefully, the benevolent dictator" brings forth authority issues. One man approached him to ask, "What's next, Captain?" and other members try to suck up to him at events. He says his system is provoking people as he always has — now, he hopes, in a positive way.

Perhaps no case better demonstrates Firinn Taisdeal's zeal in hunting down those he sees as a threat to Linkup than the ex-member he threatened with a restraining order for crashing events: "This one I have no trouble remembering: Elll-vin Martinez," Firinn says, holding on to the "l" for effect.

Sipping on a Bora Bora Horror at the Tonga Room at a recent MEETin event, the jolly marked man — a Financial District accountant, of all things — explains his stealth operation. It all started after Martinez was kicked out of Linkup for hosting issues (Firinn's version) or let his subscription expire (Martinez' claim). But he had made plenty of friends, and continued to attend several events a week for a year, sometimes on an invitation from the host or a guest, sometimes crashing. The high jinks caught up with Martinez when he squatted at an expat European event, told the miffed host about his serial crashing, and declared, "Oh, we're all immigrants from Europe."

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