No Linkup for You!

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

Firinn was on his tail. He called Martinez at work and e-mailed his boss (also a Linkup member) saying that he intended to pursue legal action against Martinez and the person providing access to his or her account. Martinez had created a phony account, and later even had a friend join so he could continue to check events. His boss was soon kicked out, too.

Firinn posted a wanted-dead-or-alive-type notice on the Linkup homepage, including Martinez' physical stats. "I was worried it was going to make me a bad person in other people's eyes," Martinez says. "But it was kind of the opposite. I got kind of famous."

Firinn grew flustered. "I was doing my best to intimidate that guy, and it didn't work," he says. "He's got some seriously heavy-duty psychological armor."

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.

Martinez says he just likes happy hour.

Another Linkup member, Chuck Jones, posted a picture on his profile in which Martinez appeared. Firinn booted Jones out, writing that he had "clear evidence that you had conspired with Mr. Elvin Martinez to provide access to your account," but all would be forgiven if he contributed evidence against Martinez for a possible restraining order. Chuck wrote back, "Quite frankly, many people consider him a bit of [a] hero."

Firinn, using the alias Roberta Newton, shot back an e-mail: "Thank you very much for letting us know that you find repeated acts of theft and fraud ... somehow admirable or heroic. It's always good to know what another person's values are, and now we know yours."

Firinn never was able to find Martinez' address to serve him with the hypothetical restraining order, despite paying for an Internet search.

Martinez continues his frenetic socializing on other sites, even hosting a salsa dancing group for www.meetup.com. As for Linkup events, he says he's mostly lost interest as many of his friends were booted off, yet he made a crashing comeback in November at a toy drive event at the Gordon Biersch brewery in San Francisco. (He didn't bring a toy.) He and Jones attempted to start a Yahoo group for Linkup exiles, but it flopped.

"They kind of flaked out on us," Jones says, and smirks.

This summer, a complaint arrived to customer service: Cee England, a regular host from San Mateo County, had e-mailed three guests who flaked on a bike ride, saying, "You're all losers." After being bawled out by customer service, she deleted herself.

The sprightly woman had known all the riders she'd written to, and meant the "loser" remark the way you'd jab your brothers in the ribs, as one complained that he wasn't in shape for the route, and another didn't want to pay. But England regretted leaving in an outrage, and Firinn heard she wanted back in.

Firinn has been contemplating the possibility of forgiveness on Linkup. An attendee at his lecture at the Commonwealth Club last year challenged him: "If your whole purpose of this is trying to change people's interactions and how they deal with each other, I don't see the compassion." But Firinn had been unsure: If given the chance, could people change?

After decades of abrasive relations with people, Firinn says he's dedicated himself to becoming less rigid and more accepting, and friends say they note the difference. After hearing that his mother had died a few years ago, Firinn paid for an Internet search to find his father's California address. Firinn met with him three years ago this month, having prepped for a month to avoid losing his temper. A six-day road trip the two took in June drew apologies from both sides, and Firinn is writing a book titled How to Change Your Mind.

Before, on Linkup, "I do think we erred too far on the side of summary judgment," Firinn admits. "If I can redeem a relationship that for three years was absolutely painful, what implication does that have for Linkup?"

So two months ago a potential policy emerged that will remain once Firinn recedes to a supervisory role to finish his book and embark on a new project providing solar ovens to women in developing countries: Certain members may be allowed back if they promise to change.

Firinn sent word that England could sign up again. She e-mailed a promise to keep all her correspondence professional in the future, and he wrote back, "I hope we all learned something from this little episode."

Something that a schoolteacher would say while patting a naughty student on the head? Yep. Did customer service also kick off some 30 members in the time it allowed a dozen to rejoin? You better believe it. Indeed, Firinn doesn't think the new policy will greatly affect the final numbers. But for the moment, at least, peace was restored in the Linkup kingdom.

"That's the new Firinn," he says. Redemption "is always a possibility."

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