Last April, a brand-new website received its first visit from an Oregonian. Somewhere in this fine state--most likely in Portland--an innocent surfer became the Typhoid Mary of an online epidemic.
He or she fed the site a few personal details: name, age, relationship status, interests, favorite bands. Soon, so did his or her friends.
And their friends.
And their friends.
They all got Friendstered.
Friendster.com, a website launched in March by Bay Area cybergeek Jonathan Abrams, spins real-world relationships into huge digital webs. You register, then search the site for old friends, ex-lovers, potential dates or people who share your most peculiar hobbies. Once you link your Friendster account to someone else's, you also link to everyone they're linked to. Soon your "personal network" includes tens of thousands of tenuously connected people you've never met, but might want to.
Since that unidentified first Oregonian signed on, the site has swept up 15,000 members in the state. Portland's more than 9,000 members make it a Friendster center--sixth in per-capita membership, ahead of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (but behind Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta). With PDX membership growing by 10 to 20 percent a week, Friendster will find you soon if it hasn't already.
Around the country, it's been the summer of Friendster. After operating on virtually no start-up capital for its first six months--and registering nearly 2 million members--a trio of Internet bigwigs poured more than $1 million into the site this month. For an online world overrun with Suicide Girls, Iraqi bloggers, LiveJournal addicts, flashmob fanatics and Howard Dean lovers, Friendster is the latest species of kudzu.
Friendster lets you search for any name, but you can only view other users' often-elaborate profiles if they connect to you via three links or fewer. (You can request an introduction to any member from a shared acquaintance.) This limit theoretically keeps the site from becoming an anonymous meat-market. And if you're looking for your ex-girlfriend's cousin's college roommate, you're in luck.
Neat. But, uh, is it good for anything?
"I tend to use it for promotion," local illustrator and DJ Eric Kilkenny says. Kilkenny posted his own website address on the Friendster profile visible to people in his three-degrees-of-separation network.
"I've gotten a lot of emails from people who found me through Friendster, saying that they like my stuff," Kilkenny says. "I've met a lot of cool DJs and artists. Something may happen from it."
Connie Wohn, who works at the Portland music company Rumblefish, prefers to use Friendster to communicate with people she already knows. "It's another forum to go toe-to-toe with my friends on the wit scale," she says. "We've developed our own lingo around it."
Some witty Friendsters, however, now find themselves on the outs with the site managers. In recent weeks, the site has begun purging "Fakesters"--Friendster profiles of fictional characters, or any other non-Realster--much to the outrage of the Fakesters' authors.
In response to the removal of popular Fakesters such as "World Trade Center," "War," "Pure Evil" and "Borg Queen," a group of Friendster users have banded together online as the Friendster Revolution, "a community of nearly 300 individuals," according to the group's website. They argue "it is the fakesters, this explosion of creativity, that differentiates friendster from all other boring networking/dating sites."
Not all the Fakesters have been purged. As of last week, there were still two listings for the city of Portland (one of which lists among its interests "Trees, Urban Planning, and Defying the Patriot Act"), 14 under the name "Death" and dozens of listings for "Jesus."
Despite the site's momentum, Wohn feels her own interest waning. "It feels like it's turned into a popularity contest," she says. "It clogs my email box and leads to slow productivity at work. I'm almost to the point of not using it anymore."
Whither Friendster? A company spokesman says the site, currently all free, plans to add a number of paid services. One would allow subscribers to "meet" people outside their personal networks. Others may roll together services now found on the job-search site Monster.com, the rendezvous bulletin-board Meetup.com and various dating services.
Not everyone is sure these moves will save Friendster from becoming the digital equivalent of a pet rock.
Irma Zandl, a leading trend watcher in New York, says people in her office "spend way, way too much time on Friendster." But she's spied signs of decline.
"We're finding that many of the early Friendsters haven't logged on in months," Zandl says. "That group's already over it."