Social Web sites force consumers to ask 'Who's the better friend?'

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Let's begin with an exercise. First, name the eight most important people in your life -- friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s.

Go ahead and bite your nails. Realize the magnitude of these decisions.

OK, so, you're either lost in terrifying flashbacks of middle-school cruelty -- or you've already made such a list, already showed it to all your friends, and since you didn't make all their Top 8s, you've already deleted the offenders from your list (and prayed they noticed). In other words, you're already on or one of the many other social networking Web sites such as or, doing your best to navigate this complex new world of friends-of-friends-of-friends-etc. with as few social casualties as possible.

If the Internet was once ungoverned by etiquette, those days are gone; MySpace and its peers, by many accounts the future of the Net, are rife with discussions of good manners versus unforgivable faux pas. There isn't an aristocratic class, just yet, but you can see the lines forming in the sand, renegades and bad boys posting bulletins pell-mell, uploading risque pictures, collecting "friends" as if it's all some big popularity contest -- while mannered netizens look on disapprovingly. Screw up and you just might get dumped, online and off.

J.D. Funari is hoping that clarity prevents offense. A week after logging onto MySpace, the 24-year-old TV editor from Studio City posted a disclaimer above his Top 8. "Since this `preferred' listing of friends can quickly become unnecessarily political, I'd like to briefly explain my sorting technique," he wrote.

"The first spot will always be my brother (for obvious reasons) and the second spot will always be my friend Katie (for reasons obvious to Katie and I). The third and fourth spots are reserved for music and movies of interest. Five and six are wild-cards which may be related to how well I know the person and/or if I'm dating them (opposite sex only) and/or if they've paid me for inclusion. The final two spots are, to be perfectly honest, the two most attractive current female photos from my list of friends."

The posted explanation sent ripples through Funari's 97 interconnected friends.

"It's very flattering," says Katie Rose Houck, 23, an actress in Los Angeles who occupies slot No. 8, reserved for attractive females. "We've only known each other for a couple of months, and we have a flirting banter going on between the two of us. This reaffirms that he knows that I'm pretty, that I know that he thinks I'm pretty, and all of his extended friends know that he thinks I'm pretty."

At first it seems as if Funari's strategy might just work. Play the honesty card, let people know where they stand, watch them celebrate or nurse their wounds and then move on. But life threatens to throw a monkey wrench into his beautiful absolutes. "The first spot will always be my brother,'" his rules explain. Problem is, Funari has two younger siblings who will soon be logging on themselves. What then? And what if he gets serious with a girl -- will she be happy at sixth place?

"If he was my boyfriend, and he didn't put me in the top 5, I would be a little offended," Houck says. "And if he kept his best girlfriend at No. 2 -- and she's pretty! -- I would be a little offended. Maybe that's why he's still single."

Well, he is single. It says so right on his page: "Status: Single." MySpace profile pages are customizable in many ways; you can add pictures, music, write blogs, list your interests or skip all this entirely. You can allow friends to jot comments directly onto your page, viewable by all, or you can retain absolute control. But try as you might, you can't avoid classifying your relationship status, which isn't always easy to do.

After the Top 8, relationship status causes the most ire in the MySpace world.

"It gets highly dramatic," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying the culture of social networking. "Sometimes one person thinks they're single while the other person thinks they're dating ...You can't have your status be, 'I'm in a relationship that I'm not entirely thrilled with, I'm waiting for something better, come talk to me.'"

What results is an inordinate amount of "swingers," an allowed choice that's sufficiently deviant for teens, ironic for adults (minus actual swingers) and has quickly become socially acceptable within the MySpace mainstream. Still, there remain many conventionalists who choose "single" or "in a relationship," and watch their physical and digital worlds intertwine.

Five months ago, 27-year-old James was "in a relationship," according to his MySpace page. Then James, a New York public relations executive who declined to provide his last name, broke up with his girlfriend and switched to "single."

In the real world and online, James and his ex remained friends, so when James started dating another woman, he didn't want to rub it in his ex's face. He delicately broached the MySpace topic with the new girlfriend, and they agreed not to switch their designation to "in a relationship" just yet. So: single online, together off.

It was four months of limbo before James and his girlfriend decided the time was right. "I was at her Easter family dinner," James remembers, "and that pretty much constitutes a relationship."

They went online, made the change and all's well -- unless things go sour. "There's a tension that never existed before," James says.

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