It is a cowardly New World in many ways: distance killing enables us to blow people to falafel with the push of a button; comradely criticism is muted by the whine of cultural sensitivity; salesmen flood our inboxes rather than knock on our doors. The realm of dating and friendship, too, has become more efficient, streamline, and instrumentally rational…or has it?
I made two very important moves this last lonely summer: I set myself up on Nerve.com personals and I made myself a Friendster profile. I will tell you about my happy and weird adventures in on-line dating next time, but here I want to say a few words about Friendster.
For those of you out of the loop, Friendster is a website that allows you to put up a profile of yourself that includes digital pictures and tidbits like marital status, favorite movies, and who you are looking to meet. (I would like to meet Claire Danes, Natalie Merchant, Sarah Silverman, and left-wing Jewish women of color, thank you.) You then email people and ask them to join your “friends” list. They make a profile, and their picture appears on your screen. You can see their friends’ profiles, and those friends’ profiles, and so on and so forth until you realize that you’re three degrees of separation from hundreds of thousands of people. Talk about connection without community! You can also search people with other similar interests, like who else’s favorite movie is Conan the Barbarian (not many and all boys) or whose hobbies are academic book shopping.
You can request to be a friend of someone’s, and they can choose to accept or reject you. Does this mean that they reject you as a friend? Not making the cut is certainly a mark of shame. But asking permission keeps random folks, like that old man in Small World, from being put up as your friend. You can then send people in your network messages, and you are updated on the traffic on your profile by email (‘Anthony Grafton has sent you a message!’).
The best part of this scene is the testimonials. These are supposed to be messages that your friends write for you, like recommendation letters. I have become an expert in writing them. The way Cornel West talks effusively about Chekhov, Coltrane or Nietzsche, I can write up some good-ass “testies” about you. Little did you know how much love in my heart I had for you! As one of the objects of my admiration, and subject of one testimonial, said, “Over the top, just how we like ‘em.” It’s also a way of singing praise strategically, without sounding like a love letter. Meanwhile, some people abuse this system by putting up short comments, better handled over email. In this way, our feelings for each other are put out there in cyberspace, pornographic in a way, letting our relationships take discursive form, letting it all (or at least a lot) hang out for all to see.
Friendster has already sparked spin-offs. There is Frumster, a dating site for orthodox Jews (‘Frum’ is slang for religiously observant). There is the joke site Fiendster. They haven’t done this yet, but they could institute an “enemies” list, like Nixon and Dick Cheney. Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could write negative testimonials about our enemies! I would include on that list the Anarch-kids who don’t vote, people rude to Princeton food service workers, and the Viagra e-mail salesmen.
There are also dummy Friendster profiles. For example, Cornel, who has never been on the internet, has a profile (run, I suspect, by a former student). Princeton has a profile, as does Terrace (which took its own sweet time approving me). On the fake Cornel West friend profile, he has friends like Larry Summers, president of Harvard and Jean-Paul Sartre. The other day at a conference, Cornel said some nice things about me in front of some professors. I blushed and said, I wish he would write me a Friendster testimonial! None of the profs knew what I was talking about, but the students standing around all guffawed.
In the process of making Friends, ethical issues arise. Should I approve people who I just met? It’s not on the level of sleeping with someone, or the punchline about the lesbian who brings a u-haul to a second date, but it does seem promiscuous. “Boy, you work fast!” However, each friend gets equal time on your screen, so one is unable to rank them according to importance. The pictures on my Friendster are arranged in some mysterious order; my closer friends are not even on the front page. I’m not sure someone’s roommate who I kind of know deserve the pole position over the new shorty. Is Jacob Savage ’06 really closer to me than Cornel West *80? Perhaps Friendster could let us choose who occupies the central positions in our friend mosaic. And what about the people you barely know? There is no Acquaintance-ster website for me to put those people.
I recently had a scare. An old friend who I had a falling out with approved my request to be his friend. Not sure that he would approve me, I took this as a sign he wanted to be back in touch. He also has cute friends, mostly Northern European Socialist activists. Currently a number of requested friends are still pending, one an old chum from grade school, another an old girlfriend who I let down in a crisis. Such drama. Are they thinking what I’m thinking? That our friendship really isn’t, but the stuff of memories? There are friends you have from inertia. You shared an experience, like a trip abroad, a few years in a dorm, or a long quest to get rid of an evil ring. Did Frodo really have that much to say to Sam after he punked-out and got hitched? Frodo, tired of the closeted Hobbits in the small-town Shire, went off with the gang to make it big in San Francisco.
And then, do I want my students to put me down as their friend? Best they wait until after I give them a grade… And then there is the issue of inviting my RCAs onto my Friendster page. I suspect some of them don’t like me, their absent-minded Assistant Master, so that would be awkward. So perhaps this essay is a call for help. Perhaps I could use fewer fake friends in my life. A mere 71 as of this writing, but of course, half of them are um, undergraduates on campus, because all my deep childhood friends are busy changing diapers and mortgaging houses and I live in Wilson College. Sigh.
The upshot is, Friendster is a way of rationally keeping inventory of my friends. Like any collecting enterprise, one grows obsessed with possession and growth, akin to the books I buy and don’t have time to read. My friends are specimens, not admired and loved ones I spend quality time with. Look world, I have many friends! Ladies and Gentlemen, how I wish I had all the time in the world to get to know ya. In the meantime, as my latest testimonial-writer instructs the reader, “Love me.”