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Fake Friends

What could be safer than meeting a friend of a friend online and going out on a little date? Lots of things, it turns out.

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While the nymphos have craigslist, the Semitophiles JDate, and the hipsters Nerve, until recently there hadn’t been a dating Website for the date-phobic. That changed with the 2003 launch of social-networking service Friendster, which is kind of like a high-school dance mixed with a virtual Rolodex. Because members can contact only those connected by four degrees of separation or fewer, the site provides an illusion of community, allowing the flirt-shy to mask entreaties as cocktail conversation: “You know Jim. I know Jim. Let’s grab a drink and talk about how weird he’s gotten lately.” But behind the casual façade are some dangerous features. Once a member sets up a page, he creates a gallery of friends who can submit testimonials to his greatness—all of which he must approve. That wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that all Friendster members are accessible by a search for first and last name. Which means that ex you’re trying to get rid of can find you, your relationship status, and photos of all your new “friends” at the click of a mouse—not the best recipe for romantic privacy.

Curtis, 24, a real-estate investor, dated a stripper-comedian and then made the mistake of accepting her testimonial. “Curtis and I once spent the day together,” it read. “He was so chivalrous. He maintained eye contact the whole time.” He approved it without thinking, but then his ex-girlfriend, whom he’d dumped six weeks before, found his page and read the testimonial. Realizing she and the stripper had a mutual friend, she called the mutual, who called the stripper to get all the details and reported them back to Curtis’s ex. “I ran into my ex at a club,” says Curtis, “and she said, ‘So how do you like dating a stripper?’ She even knew that we’d slept together on the second date. I was trying to date someone as far away from her as possible, and sure enough, there was a mutual connection.”

Curtis has now removed his page and has no regrets. “In finance,” he says, “you learn that more information makes for more efficient markets, but you don’t want more information when you’re dating. The last thing you want is to leave a dating trail.”

Cases of such cross-purposes are common on Friendster—and not only between exes and currents. While some singles are on there looking for relationships, others use the community vibe to get laid. “It’s not Friendster,” says my friend Greg Walloch, 33, a writer–performer. “It’s Six Degrees of How I Got Chlamydia.” After getting an e-mail from a guy, “Robert,” who name-checked a mutual friend, Greg said yes to a date. “I later found out that they didn’t know each other very well,” he recalls. “They had gone on one date, but my friend didn’t want to remove Robert as a friend because he thought it would be mean.” (Friendster has a function called “edit friends” that allows you to delete people if and when you tire of them. If only it were that easy in the real world.)

Greg agreed to go to Robert’s place for drinks and then out to dinner: “We talked a little bit, and then we drank wine. He leaned in for a kiss, and when he leaned in again for the second, he reached out, grabbed me”—a part of him, that is—“and went for it. I wasn’t quite ready for that to happen. Afterwards, he said, ‘I gotta get up early. Hate to ask you to leave. Can we take a rain check on dinner?’ ” Though they never spoke again, he didn’t remove Robert from his page, so he still hovers like a ghost of blow jobs past.

Greg admits that he wouldn’t have let things go so far if the date had been arranged in the real world. “If you set me up with a friend of yours, not through Friendster, I would never act the way the guy did on that date—for fear your friend would tell you what a jerk I was. But the people on your list aren’t really your friends. If you had that many friends, you wouldn’t be sitting alone in your apartment in your underwear.”

With the fake friends, the flings, and the former lovers all hanging out in the same room, Friendster winds up looking a lot like that safe-sex ad where the guy and the girl are about to sleep together and all of their exes start crawling into the bed. More access doesn’t make for more romance. One Friendster member, Maya, 24, a sculptor, was aghast when her 62-year-old mother, Harriet, informed her that she had joined Friendster at the request of Maya’s sister. “I said, ‘You’re on Friendster?’ She said, ‘Why is that bad?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and then told her not to friend-request me. She got really hurt, so I said, ‘Oh, all right.’ ” Immediately afterward, Maya posted a plea for help on one of Friendster’s bulletin boards. “I feel funny,” she wrote. “She’s gonna read all of my testimonials and find out that I’m really a drunk whore.” Her friends wrote back with advice—like “My dad’s on Friendster. Let’s hook them up.” (Alas, Harriet is married to Maya’s father.)

So far, Harriet has only one friend, her other daughter, and no testimonials or interests. But she looks primed for action. “Now she wants to find people she went to high school with and get testimonials,” Maya says with a sigh. “I know Friendster is up there for everyone to see. I just didn’t expect the day to come when my mom would be there.”

If some think it’s too easy for the wrong people to get in touch, others complain that the site makes it hard to get rid of people. Ted, 34, a screenwriter and comedian, has burned out on Friendster dating. “You’ll go on a date with someone and it doesn’t work out and you think, Okay, I’ll never see her again. Then that night, you go home and get an e-mail from her saying she wants to add you as a friend. It’s like, Not only don’t I want to have another drink with you, but I don’t want to e-mail you, I don’t want to troll your list of friends, and I don’t want you on my Friendster list! Go away!”


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