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Stella Frank

Friend vs. Friendster: The new social networks

Friendster: the Beginning

When I returned to Brown this past fall, after spending the spring semester in Helsinki, I started hearing about Friendster – usually in the context of a housemate coming down to the kitchen going on about "this girl Petra – do you know her? She just tried to Friendster me but I have no idea where she knows me from, it's so sketchy" or "Jess is on Friendster, finally!"

Eventually I discovered that Friendster was a part of a nascent internet phenomenon known either as ASN (Artificial Social Networks - Weinberger) or, tongue-in-cheek, YASN (Yet Another Social Network - boyd). These websites all work along similar lines: users create profiles and link them to other user's profiles. However, they differ as to the purpose that their creators had in mind. Some deal in career networking (, others are to share photos (, or to create a space for recommendations and to do garage-sale-like business ( is currently becoming the ASN of choice for (elite) university students, while Google just launched Orkut, an invitation-only ASN.

Friendster is not the oldest ASN, but since its launch in the fall of 2002 it has become the eponymous ASN and is certainly the one most widely used in my circle of friends (although may change that soon). Originally it was created as a dating network, with the idea that friends-of-friends would make more suitable dates than random characters from However, very few of the people I talked to about Friendster admitted using it for finding potential dates. Mostly it was seen as a kind of photo album-cum-mass messaging device (and of course, a prime procrastination tool).

Social Networks, real and artificial

Human beings, as social beings, are connected to each other through social ties. This obvious fact nevertheless harbors some surprises, since these ties combine to make a network, and exactly how networks work is only beginning to be understood by physicists and mathematicians such as Albert-Laszlo Babarasi and Mark Buchanan. One of the pioneering discoveries about social networks (which can be translated to other networks as well) was that any two people, of the six billion in the world, are connected by a countable, usually small, number of links. "Six degrees of separation" was first posited by Stanley Milgram in the sixties, who used the US postal network to connect, among others, blacks in LA and whites in New York. Later on, people measured connections among actors to Kevin Bacon, while mathematicians had Erdös numbers – how many co-authored papers away they were from Paul Erdös. The incredibly small amount of links necessary to connect any two nodes a complete network was found to be due to the fact that the number of links per node has a distribution according to the power law, which means that there are some nodes that act as super-connectors with extremely high number of links. In the world of mathematics, Paul Erdös was such a super-connector, as Google is on the internet. The role that super-connectors play in Friendster will be discussed further on.

These discoveries articulated the interconnectedness of people in networks, which was and is not always recognized by people acting within the networks, as evidenced by how surprising it seems when two friends from different contexts turn out to know each other from yet a third context. People generally don’t keep track of friends-of-friends, and there's little reason they should: if a friend-of-a-friend is that interesting, she should become a friend. Most of the time people aren't even aware of friends-of-friends, except through coincidental mentioning, much less friends of third degree and beyond.

ASNs, though the central database, make it possible to track connections over a much higher number of degrees (though Friendster will only allow you to view friends of third degree or closer). In the case of Friendster, with dating in mind, this allows you to browse through your friends's friends and find that someone they ought to have set you up with months ago but that they never thought of. ASNs provide visualizations of the social network through the linked 'friend' pages in a way that was invisible before, when the network was something you interacted in, instead of click your way through.

I am more than the sum of my profiles

As more and more aspects of our lives occur on the internet, it becomes necessary to depict ourselves there, to create some kind of identity. For most purposes, such as access to websites, etc., a username and password suffices. If the purpose is social – interaction with other users – more details about one's identity is needed. For example, IM clients such as AIM give users a space where they can fill out a 'profile' of themselves. Since AIM users generally know each other, the profiles are usually filled with jokes or quotes: profiles are a presentation of self, more than a description of self.

Networks consist of nodes that are linked together. The nodes of a social network are the people who make up the network; the nodes of an artificial social network are the profiles. The profiles, in theory, represent the people who make up the underlying real social network, but the degree to which they do so (or whether the underlying social network is real, in any sense) is questionable.

The Friendster profile is extremely limiting, if you are trying to present yourself. The usual demographic information is there: Gender (with binary options for male/female), age, location, occupation, etc. There is space to list your interests, as well as favorite books, movies, music, as well as a paragraph "about me" and "who I'd like to meet." Because of the limited space, people focus more on presenting themselves as interesting and intriguing, rather than being especially truthful or informative. This results in too many hipper-than-thou profiles where people seem to try to list the most arcane bands or films, or interests that are inside jokes. On the other hand, because there does exist some kind of underlying real-world social network, blatant falsehoods are hard to get away with and generally don’t exist, except for so-called Fakesters: profiles made for inanimate institutions (both Brown and Finlandia have Friendster profiles), pets, celebrities, post-structuralist philosophers, etc. Fakesters are popular with Friendster users, but the Friendster creators have decided to crack down on them in the interest of keeping the (artificial) social network reflective of the real one. This seems questionable since individuals do have ties to institutions, whether or not the ties are social in a strict sense.

Are you my friend? Or just my Friendster?

The people I've watched spending time on the Friendster website (including myself) spend most of their time just browsing their friends and friends-of-friends, rather than reading their profiles. This implies that "you are your friends," not your own depiction of yourself. It naturally follows that the act of linking your profile to those of others is of supreme significance in Friendsterland.
In the real-world social network, people draw a distinction between "spreading yourself short and thick", having few but close friends, and having a large group of less close friends. However, this can't apply in Friendster, since there are no qualitative differences between links. The distinction is binary: either you are linked or not, either you are a 'Friendster' or not. (The term 'Friendster' to describe someone you are linked to is from danah boyd, who quotes a user as saying, "She's not my friend, but she's my Friendster.")

Since quality doesn’t matter, quantity is the only way to distinguish yourself. As a friend of mine said: "It's all about getting as many friends as you can; Friendster is just a big popularity contest." Additional motivation is presented by the fact that the more people you are linked to, the more of the Friendster network you can see. People thus link to people they would not consider friends in the strict sense of the word (as in the quote from danah boyd above). Of course, there is a certain amount of backlash against people with inordinate numbers of Friendsters (over one hundred, give or take a score). Boyd calls these "Friendster sluts", a name which some have embraced (see websites). Such users act as super-connectors in the ASN.

As well as not providing any sense of the quality of a friendship, Friendster links also miss the context. Unless the profile offers clues, it is impossible to distinguish the work colleagues from the friends from high school. Moreover, friends from different contexts can see each other, which may or may not be desirable. Social connections are often valuable, especially in the business world: it seems unlikely that a PR rep would be willing to offer up her connections on

In his seminal paper "The Strength of Weak Ties", Mark Granovetter argues that so-called weak ties are more valuable than strong ties between people with many mutual connections, since people connected by weak ties are less likely to have access to the same information. He found that people overwhelmingly find jobs though weak connections. The same holds true for dating: if you are a single straight male with a close circle of other straight males, you are unlikely to find a girlfriend through them (if only because they'll ask her out first). On the other hand, a weak connection like the girl next to you in class may be a better bet. She may also have a group of single female friends interested in your group of friends. In that case, the connection between the girl and yourself is a social "bridge" between tightly knit clusters that would otherwise be unlinked. Bridges, rather than clusters, are what makes the six degrees of separation phenomenon work – however, clusters are obviously far more valuable for friendship and support in real social networks. Friendster can't offer true friendship, but it is great for finding bridges.

When asking people why they used Friendster, what Friendster was useful for, one reply that I hadn't expected but heard frequently was that it allowed them to maintain contact with people that they would otherwise have lost touch with – high school friends, people met while traveling, and so on. These are generally the weak ties that form bridges. Friendster also makes it easier to keep each other updated: you can send bulletin board messages to all your Friendsters, without even having to remember their email addresses, as well as personal messages to individual Friendsters.

Social networks on Friendster are much more static than their real-world social network. Depending on context and the quality of the relationship, if you don’t communicate with someone in your real-world network in, say, a month, it may be that your friendship has expired. On Friendster, however, while the option of deleting friends does exist, it is generally used in only the worst cases of terminated relationships. If nothing dramatic happens, two profiles will remain linked (at least until Friendster goes under). In other words, real-world social ties require effort to uphold, whereas Friendsterships are forever.

The newest of the new: FOAF(ster)

Around the same time as ASNs became widely popular, blogging took off. Blogs (weblogs) are internet-based journals of a sort, websites which are updated frequently which reflect the author's thoughts and generally include links to things the author finds interesting, as well as a large number of links to other weblogs. The high degree of interconnectedness makes the 'Blogosphere' a social network of sorts, although, unlike Friendster, but like real-world social networks, it is difficult to see beyond one degree of separation.

However, this is about to change. The FOAF (Friend-of-a-friend) project has developed a "semantic web vocabulary" that gathers Friendster-esque information that you include on your own website, as well as such information on sites linked to yours. Essentially, it is the open-source version of Friendster, one that doesn't need a central database. As yet, there are few applications that use FOAF. If it becomes widespread, it could let us transfer the connections beyond first degree visible to us on Friendster to the rest of our lives.

One immediate application is email white lists, which could then be set to accept emails from friends-of-friends, instead of just from friends/people in your address book. Using social networks to filter email merely echoes what happens in the real world when we listen to a friend or someone we are socially aware of, but not the Jehovah's witnesses who come knocking on our door.

Using an open-source vocabulary would also get rid of identical looking Friendster profiles in favor of sites that might present a more multi-faceted, accurate representation of the user. However, this presents two difficulties. Firstly, many Friendster and other ASN users are unwilling to spend the time or accumulate the technical knowledge to build such a site. Secondly, sites that contained interesting content would distract users from the more immediate gratification of social network browsing. Friendster would no longer be entirely mindless – there would be a possiblility of discovering something apart from the social network.

Friendsters forever?

There is no doubt that the links created by Friendster are entirely different than those of true friendship, created by shared experiences and values. However, as long as there is no danger of confusing the two (and the users of Friendster are generally savvy and cynical enough not to) Friendster and FOAF software offer powerful potential uses.

Being aware of one's place within a large social network that is highly interconnected may breed greater tolerance, although presently Friendster is being used mainly by a very specific (young, urban) demographic, so the connections to others outside that demographic are as yet invisible. Friendster is unlikely to grow beyond that demographic, just as most of the ASNs are relatively demographic-specific. However, general usage of FOAF would go on to link nearly all internet users, which is rapidly becoming equivalent to the general population as large. Xenophobia, fear of the stranger, would be mitigated if it was know that the stranger was a mere three or four links away.

The fear that Friendster and ASNs may weaken social ties is not entirely unjustified. Just as the internet breeds a more-is-more approach to knowledge, in which quality is often lost among thousands of search results, Friendster is only able to focus on quantity, not quality, of human relationships. In our real lives, however, it is the quality of our connections to others that is most important. Whether or not we are Friendster sluts, in the end it is the few strong bonds of true friendship that give us the support and love that we need more than large but abstract social networks. These are the people we come home to at night – people we are unlikely to give up for mere profiles.

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