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.”
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.
Your induction into Friendster starts out innocently enough: You receive an e-mail invitation from a friend. It doesn't cost anything to join, so you give it a whirl. You answer questions about your profession, favorite books, movies, music, and other interests, then upload a digital photo of yourself.
Thumbnail versions of your friends' photos appear on your profile page like a collection of trading cards. Clicking on their pictures takes you to their pages, where you can see all of their friends, and so on. Even with only a few friends, you find that — through friends of friends — you suddenly have access to a social network of thousands of people. [page]
Once you're a member, you can send and receive messages from people in your social network, and post announcements on your page like “Hey, friends, I'm having a garage sale this Saturday!” In the “testimonials” section of your profile, your buddies write glowing reviews about you, and vice versa.
Friendster has obvious benefits for single people, but has proven captivating even to those not looking for love. There is something wonderful about seeing the Six Degrees of Separation rule in action, for one thing. When I read an article about Friendster in Slate, for instance, I searched for the name of the writer on Friendster, and saw I was connected to him through three different friends. There's also the voyeuristic entertainment value of reading strangers' profiles. (I learned that the Slate writer likes to exchange mix tapes in the mail with people who send him homemade artwork.) And because of the network effect, the more people who jump on Friendster, the more interesting it gets. Old friends resurface, and you can see the overlapping rings of your social circles, all in one place. It's a way to know a little bit about a lot of people you've always wondered about.
To register with Friendster, you must agree to be yourself in your profile. However, it's easy to break that rule. Unlike other matchmaking sites such as Yahoo! Personals and Match.com, Friendster doesn't review each profile before it goes live, so it's simple to create a phony one and upload a digital photo from the Web to illustrate it. Voilà! You've created a fakester.
It's hard to know what percentage of Friendster users create fakesters (the company doesn't track that), but you can tell from using the site that the number is high. Fakesters are everywhere. There are at least a dozen Deaths and more than 50 Jesuses. There's Harold, and also Maude. Anna Wintour and Snoop Dogg are there. There's Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. Gay Pride and Gay Flag. The week that U.S. troops knocked off Uday and Qusay Hussein, the men's gruesome dead faces appeared together as a Friendster profile.
Most fakesters are simply pranksters. Arthur Ratnick, a 35-year-old cook from Rochester, N.Y., joined Friendster shortly after it launched in March as a fakester named Pure Evil. His photo was a red box with “evil” written on it in black letters. Ratnick hooked up with other fakesters with handles such as Big Corporation, Money, and George W. Bush, writing to them in the voice of his character. He then posted the exchanges to his bulletin board, so his Friendster friends could follow his exploits, like a soap opera.
Big Corporation: Howard Dean is a good person, and believes in fairness and honesty. Thus, he is an obstacle to my mission, global domination. He must be stopped.
Pure Evil: I wouldn't worry too much about it, old chum. A puppet head is a puppet head. If it is groomed like a newscaster then it suckes [sic] from my teat …
Big Corporation: Excellent. My worry was misplaced. thankyou [sic] for the reassurance.
Ratnick uses his fakester as a creative outlet, and to connect with other people who share his bizarre sense of humor.
“In Rochester, when you do weirdo stuff it's hard to get a reaction. It's a small city,” says Ratnick. “But on Friendster, there were people who knew what I was doing immediately, and were willing to play along with it, or expand on it in completely imaginative ways.”
Ratnick became so chummy with a fakester named Jesus, the nom de Net of a young man in North Carolina, that he gave him his password so he could baby-sit the Pure Evil profile. (Jesus posted testimonials, approved friends, and wrote messages for Pure Evil while Ratnick went camping for a week.)
Real users often add fakesters to their friend lists like “charms on a charm bracelet,” as one user put it, to show other people what type of things they're into. So if you're a lefty politico, you might befriend the fakester Noam Chomsky; if you're a hedonistic partyer, you might befriend Nitrous.
Other people invent fakesters to expand their virtual Rolodex. When San Francisco writer Lisa Sebasco first joined Friendster, she created a real profile and connected it to her real friends. Sebasco, 38, was looking to hook up with other women. But few of her Friendster friends were gay, and her greater Friendster network (friends of friends) did not contain many gay women.
To see if she could attract more lesbians, Sebasco created a fakester named after a dyke bar in the Mission called the Lexington Club. It worked — more than 200 women asked “Lexington” to be their friend, and suddenly Sebasco had a passel of hotties to check out. The Lexington profile became such a dyke magnet that it was mentioned several times in the “women seeking women” section of Craigslist. (Similarly, the Stud is a popular profile on Friendster, as is the Endup.)
“I feel a bit sad when Lexington gets a friend request or message at 11 o'clock on a Friday or Saturday night because it means that someone is home in front of their computer instead of out trying to, um, get some,” writes Sebasco in an e-mail. “On the flip side, I think 'Hey, at least they're checking out the girls in the Lexington network.' Heck, it might even be some girl's first small step in exploring her sexuality.”
Though some Friendster users find fakesters annoying or silly, others see them as one of the online community's more interesting aspects. For every Killer Green Bud or Dickface fakester profile riddled with spelling errors and unimaginative screeds, there are three twisted sendups of American pop culture. Take Retarded Raver, a 20-year-old community college dropout and aspiring DJ who writes that he likes to “put glowsticks on the end of strings and spin dem around.” [page]
Others are just plain twisted. The fakester Catboon, who Photoshopped two kitten heads onto the body of a baboon, enjoys music by Burt Bacharach and lists his interests simply as “bourbon.” “My master got me on his last trip to London, where I was being used as a street freak,” Catboon writes in the “about me” section.
Fakesters “keep levity and parody alive on an otherwise boring dating service for vapid and conceited scenesters and inept losers,” is how one of the Jesuses put it. But they're also breaking the rules.
Friendster's corporate headquarters is located in an anonymous-looking Sunnyvale office park that a few years ago would have been buzzing with dot-com start-ups. Friendster shares the building with a few other companies; only a handful of cars is in the parking lot.
Jonathan Abrams is thin and fidgety, with salt-and-pepper hair and big blue eyes that are quick to narrow suspiciously. He sits in an office that has not one shred of decoration. To keep up with Friendster's explosive growth, Abrams often works far into the night seven days a week — user demand continues to overload the new servers he and his staff keep adding. Abrams looks tired, and is not easily amused.
In early July, Friendster's affable chief operating officer, Kent Lindstrom, told me the only fakesters that the company would likely remove would be ones it received complaints about. (On Friendster, users can “flag” somebody's profile for the company to review, and write comments about why it offended them.) But Abrams shakes his head emphatically when I mention this.
“No. They're all going,” he says, his voice steely. “All of them.”
A native of Canada, Abrams is a former Netscape programmer and entrepreneur who in 1999 founded and later sold a company called HotLinks that compiled people's favorite Web sites into a public directory. He built Friendster last summer as a way to meet women. He likes to tell interviewers that the project was prompted by the breakup of a two-year relationship, but he doesn't like it when I probe for details of exactly who dumped whom. “Isn't that a little personal?” he snaps.
Abrams saw that his friends were using online dating sites to meet women, so he decided to try it. But Internet hookups felt “random and anonymous” to him.
He envisioned a matchmaking site that worked more like real life, in which friends introduce you to available people. Through connections in the high-tech sector, he raised about $400,000 in seed money and, in June 2002, launched a private version for his friends to try out. By March, he had a free beta test version up and running and invited the public. Starting later this month, Friendster users will have to pay about $8 per month if they want to send e-mail messages to users who aren't already their friends — a cheaper version of a payment strategy that has worked well for other matchmaking sites like Match.com.
Abrams says he always knew Friendster would be “more than just a dating site,” but he doesn't share the fakesters' vision of what it should be. Fakesters, he claims, expose him to possible lawsuits by companies like Disney, whose characters or images get co-opted by fakesters. He also thinks the fictional profiles screw up the networking effect.
“The whole point of Friendster is that you're connected to somebody through mutual friends, not by virtue of the fact that you both like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups,” he says.
Fakesters also create problems by adding friends indiscriminately in contests to see who can collect the most. Some, like God Almighty, have more than 1,000 friends. Loading profiles with that many connections strains Friendster's already overloaded servers. Hence the company recently hired a customer service rep who sporadically deletes fakesters, and plans to step up these efforts in the future.
Friendster aims to take down not only fakesters' phony pictures but also those of “realsters” who post images other than of their own faces. That means users who prefer visual anonymity are out of luck — like a friend of mine who pictures his cat on Friendster because he'd once been recognized on the street from his original Friendster profile and didn't like it.
“We have no way of knowing if that cat is really your cat, or a copyrighted image,” Abrams says firmly. “The pictures are supposed to be a means of identifying you.” But he acknowledges that Friendster has yet to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a company whose name or image is being used by fakesters.
Digital copyright attorney Martin Schwimmer says Abrams has little to worry about in terms of such copying.
“I can go on AOL and have the user name HarleyLover@aol.com and I'm not going to be sued for it, unless I'm selling motorcycle parts through my user name or something,” says Schwimmer. The bigger danger to Friendster, he says, is fraud. He cites a recent Village Voice article about Friendster that recounts an incident in which a user posed as a celebrity and persuaded women to send him naked pictures of themselves. “That is the definition of fraud,” says Schwimmer. “One cannot fault Friendster for saying, 'These are our ground rules, you have to say who you really are.'”
One night in June, Arthur Ratnick logged onto Friendster before going to bed and saw his logo had been replaced by a gray question mark — the default graphic for users who haven't uploaded a digital picture of themselves. Pure Evil had been struck down!
Ratnick immediately “cloned” Pure Evil by setting up another e-mail account and re-creating the same profile. Within an hour, the new Pure Evil had been taken down. The war was on. [page]
Other fakesters suffered worse fates. God Almighty was deleted altogether.
Friendster has an aura of mystery about it. The “about us” section of the site is skimpy (understandable, as it's still in beta mode), and until Abrams was interviewed by a few media outlets this summer, most Friendster users had no idea who — or what — was behind the site. The company has sent few communiqués to users, nor made any official announcements about when and how it will charge its users. So, naturally, rumors abound. One persistent conspiracy theory is that the site is a front for a U.S. Justice Department project to spy on users (most unlikely, since if it were being run on government servers, it would be much faster). And when fakesters got axed without so much as a form letter from Friendster, it fed their paranoia — and their anger.
“It was just like this faceless entity that came down and wiped us out,” says Ratnick.
The purges united fakesters, who began communicating through profiles of those who'd survived Abrams' wrath. Several, including Pure Evil, posted open letters to Friendster on their bulletin boards in hopes they could convince the company that fakesters were people, too.
“[It] seems like Friendster wants to be another site for the Gap crowd,” a fakester called PetsUntilEaten e-mailed Abrams. “But the freaks have their foot in the door & they don't want to give it up. Creative freaks make better sites if only because they have cooler photos & funnier things to say.”
By then, fakesters (like many others on Friendster) had located Abrams' own profile on the site. Some petitioned him for friendship, hoping to mend fences, but were spurned — and then abruptly deleted. Rebuffed so rudely, fakesters turned militant.
They whomped up dozens of Abrams clones, Photoshopping his face onto a variety of human and nonhuman bodies. There was Jonny Rotting, a green and moldy-looking Abrams with one eye blackened and the other missing. There was Elton Jon and Gay Clone Jonny, in which Abrams was transformed into a leather daddy. There was even Jonny Nitro, an Abrams-inspired comic book character who took the form of a human torch. A hilariously nasty message was pasted into the “about me” section of most of the Jonny clone profiles:
“I'm a fucking wanker who has such a hard time meeting women that I invented my own dating service. For some reason no one used it for that purpose though. Instead people made up characters and started having fun being creative and writing funny, madcap shit to each other. I couldn't have that, naturally, so I'm slowly tearing all that crap down to make room for a world full of boredom and stupidity. I even think I might get rich for being so white bread ….”
A call to Friendster confirmed that Abrams had seen the clones and found them “annoying.”
The fakesters attacked on other fronts. Roy Batty penned a long-winded “Fakester Manifesto” based on the Declaration of Independence, arguing for the legitimacy of fake identities by referring to the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. He also defended the legality of fakesterism, noting that trademarks co-opted for artistic purposes are protected under “fair use” exemptions. Fakesters organized as the Borg Collective and established a Yahoo! Groups bulletin board called FriendsterRevolution on which to hatch their counterattack. In just two weeks, more than 200 people joined.
Their battle strategies are often as ridiculous and pointless as their Friendster profiles. One of the Jesuses, for instance, encourages fakesters to flag the profiles of “uninteresting” realsters. Such people, he says, include those who list Adam Sandler among their favorite movie stars or cite “chillin'” as one of their interests.
When you add a friend on Friendster, you must verify that you know him by providing his last name or e-mail address. Deleted fakesters with hundreds of friends had to start from scratch with their clones. Through FriendsterRevolution, the fictional profilers collected each other's e-mail addresses so that they could easily build back the friend networks of their new clones. One fakester even wrote a program that automatically sent friend requests to this e-mail list and confirmed anybody who asked him to be his friend. (This tactic was controversial, however, as some fakesters saw it as spam.)
Fomenting revolution was a new pastime for fakesters, and their shenanigans became more daring. One of the Jesuses hatched the idea of “self-actualized clones” that displayed their e-mail addresses and passwords in their profiles. Like a house with an open door, anybody could come in and use them. Morgan Johnson, a San Franciscan who operates the fakester Giant Squid, pioneered the use of “kamikaze clones” — fakesters who send vitriolic messages to Abrams, knowing that he'll quickly delete their profiles.
Though to an outsider the fakester uprising might have looked like a big practical joke, there were serious issues behind it.
“It's symbolic of a larger cultural battle,” says an East Bay fakester who asked to be identified only by his profile name, Slushie Petersun. “Creative self-expression is being whittled away in this country because of lawsuits over copyright issues and media mergers.”
Roy Batty passionately agrees. “If we continue to allow corporations to dictate what we do or say, it undermines our entire way of life in this country,” he says. “If we go down in flames, at least we'll feel like we tried to accomplish something.”
When it began, the Internet offered a world of new opportunities for anonymous communication and self-representation. Here was a unique medium that revealed nothing about you — not the way you looked, the sound of your voice, or even your handwriting. The possibilities for self-invention were nearly limitless — and, some would say, highly liberating. Online, you have far more control over how people perceive you, free from stereotypes about race, gender, income, and age. But the people behind Friendster want to make their site as unlike the Internet as possible. [page]
“The idea is how you would really meet someone at a beach party,” says Friendster COO Lindstrom. “We want people to feel comfortable, for people's behavior to be what's normally socially acceptable.”
Abrams says he wants Friendster to be “like eBay” in its mass appeal. But not everybody watching the Friendster phenomenon thinks this is the greatest business strategy.
“Friendster is going up against Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, which are huge,” says David Card, an analyst who covers online dating sites for Jupitermedia, a Darien, Conn.based firm that sells research reports to corporations about trends in the information technology industry. “The only way to compete is to appeal to a niche, whether it's bondage, or fetish, or black, or gay. His niche could be 'interesting' people, but if he doesn't like 'interesting' people ….”
Of course, what's socially acceptable to one user is censorship to another. And many fakesters argue — convincingly — that their behavior is no more fake than a lot of realsters'. It's a cliché that everybody bends the truth in a personal ad. And even on Friendster, which is full of hipsters pretending they're not on the site for dating, there's just as much pretense. For instance, how much do you really know about a guy who lists his interests as “unnecessarily speaking of himself in the third person” and describes himself as having “my drivers license and an eliptical [sic] soul”?
“At least we're more real about being fake,” gripes one fakester.
In the final analysis, Friendster is Jonathan Abrams' beach party, and he gets to decide who is acceptable and who isn't. He built his site as a way of getting himself dates, not to chat with a Jesus impersonator.
As we talk, Abrams admits that Friendster's success has killed his social life; it's more than a little ironic that he has his very own dating site, but no time to date. He asks me if I have any cute single friends. I do, and one's even a Friendster member. But I have to point out that her online picture is of a funny little schmoo-like shark head. Abrams rolls his eyes and opens up my profile page to look at my collection of friends, many of whom present distinctly nonhuman miens.
“Oh, I get it. Your friends are all smartass types,” he says in exasperation. He types a message to my shark-faced friend. “Hi Kerry,” he writes. “Your profile looks interesting. Too bad you have such a silly picture.”