A new online craze has enveloped Tucson as it has spread around the world

Addiction, Thy Name is Friendster 

A new online craze has enveloped Tucson as it has spread around the world

Jonathan Abrams founded Friendster in March of 2003 as an alternative to online dating. Dating, schmating. With five million members (and growing), it's as if Friendster is for anything BUT hooking up. Take, for instance, finding people with which to play Skip-Bo.

Yes, Skip-Bo, which is "far superior to Uno," one player contends. She has two Friendster accounts: one with her real name (which shall remain anonymous) and her Fakester name, "Skip-Bo Squad." That's the name of the Skip-Bo league she runs every Sunday night at The Grill, downtown on Congress Street, with some friends. Not that they're weird Skip-Bo fanatics; it's a social thing.

So social, that "Squad" uses Friendster to recruit players.

"When we started Skip-Bo Squad," the 27-year-old Tucson mortgage banker said, "we looked up people on Friendster interested in playing. A lot of Squad members later signed up as Friendsters."

That's just the tip of the Friendster iceberg. Before we delve, let's define this digital playground first.

Log on to www.friendster.com and become a member, for free. The prompts will ask you questions: your status (single, married, open relationship, men or women, or both), your location, your occupation, interests, favorite music, books, TV shows, movies, etc. Then, you fill in an "about me" section and a "who I want to meet" section. Now you have a profile.

The key is, the only people who can see this information are linked to you via Friendster. You invite your first-degree friends (people you know and talk to in real life) to join and/or become your Friendster. This request is sent to them via e-mail if they are already on Friendster. They must confirm that you are indeed friends before you link up and get on the same network together. A network consists of you and your friends, plus their friends, and their friends' friends. (Just by having 26 friends, for example, one account has access to 440,776 people in the network.)

Only they can see bulletin-board postings, click on any network member's profile and write them messages, or introduce two friends they think may just hit it off.

With just one click, one can see any friend's photo, profile and how many degrees of separation lie betwixt.

"I think it furthers--and actually makes into reality--the whole six degrees of separation idea," eastside Tucson Friendster Rachel said.

One Friendster is "Tucson" himself. The Old Pueblo enjoys hooking people up off the bulletin board or telling people where to eat and go out.

"I do know two girls," Tucson recalled, "roommates, in fact, who had the same guy send them a message on the same day. It was the exact same message about how he was 'new to Friendster' and maybe they would want to get coffee sometime. No kidding! Let that be a lesson to you. Check who the friends are and how you are connected to a person before you send a message to everyone in the gallery."

Before long, Friendster becomes downright addicting. When other members have more Friendsters than you, it compels you to harvest more. So you get second-degree friends to join--you know, friends of friends, or people you say "hi" to in passing. Move on to third-degree friends: You don't even know their last names, but they are good enough for Friendster. They will agree to it because they need more Friendsters, too.

It doesn't matter. For Friendster is not about meeting new people or dating--at first.

Nay. Friendster is what you do instead of working, attending class or feeding the kids. It takes time to refine a Friendster profile, harvest friends and click click click to see who their friends are and figure out why you don't know them.

"Friendster has evolved from online dating to people connecting to make new friends, meeting old friends, hooking up, everything and more than Jon envisioned," Friendster marketing and public relations director Lisa Kopp said.

When the beta version first launched in March 2003, clusters of friends flourished in New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area (where Jonathan Abrams launched the Web site). By the late summer, there were 1 million members. By October's end, there were 3 million. By December, 4 million.

And only 30 people are running it.

"I think we're all so busy and crazy with our lives. We have no time to meet in those old-school, traditional ways," Kopp rationalized. "Friendster mirrors the way people meet in real life, especially for people who don't want to do online dating. They want to meet people and meet them through their friends."

Most users are "just here to help" or in search of "activity partners," as you can indicate on your profile. Other options include "dating" or "serious relationship."

"'Activity partner' is a name Jonathan and the guys came up with," Kopp added. "We don't want to make it only for dating. Activity partner might be a California thing, where we do a lot of bike rides and runs. And it's translated into all cities, where people are looking for people with similar interests."

World travelers need Friendster, too.

"I use it to keep in touch with my friends that are scattered across the country and in the Philippines; usually they'll post bulletin-board messages about stuff going on around their cities, so it will be useful to me when I visit," said Tucson Friendster Janelle, who lists "shropshire slasher" as her occupation.

Her Friendster, Ian, posted this "testimonial" about Janelle: "Janelle, my 'lil chiquita melon-girl. J' and I have been tight since ... the Stone Ages. No, really! I used to beat her over the head with a Velociraptor femur, drag her into my bat-cave and have my neanderthal way with her. ... I haven't seen her since she stole all that coke from me, eloped with my long-time girlfriend and crashed my favorite motorcycle ... that was along time ago ... I forgive you, little One."

Friendster has attracted a wide variety of folks, including some people you've probably heard of. Kopp confirmed that Ahmed Zappa, Matthew McConaughey and members of the Real World are on Friendster. But when you see hundreds of people claiming to be Madonna, or Janet Jackson's boobie, they are imposters, or Fakesters.

Kopp clarified one rumor: Friendster will never charge for the services it offers now, but "in the future we will add premium services with different payment options."

Execs also plan on adding new profile fields based on member comments. Friendster will also launch a new store with logo T-shirts, hats, and underwear. So now your underwear will know other underwear within the same Friendster network.

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