A SOCIOLOGIST among geeks and a geek among sociologists, Danah Boyd has 278 friends who link her to 1.1 million others.
So says Friendster.com, whose millions of members have transformed it from a dating site into a free-for-all of connectedness where new social rules are born of necessity. A 25-year-old graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, Ms. Boyd studies Friendster, hovering above the fray with a Web log called Connected Selves (www.zephoria.org/snt) and interviewing Friendster users. Her irrepressible observations have made her a social-network guru for the programmers and venture capitalists who swarm around Friendster and its competitors.
“She’s definitely a Pied Piper for a bunch of different people,” said Joichi Ito, a high-tech venture capitalist who lives in Tokyo. “At the same time she, as an academic, is able to articulate what is going on in a way that the people building the tools rarely understand or can articulate.”
Ms. Boyd explained Friendster this way: “It allows you to purposely say who the people in your world are and to allow them to see each other, through a connection of you.” An individual registered at Friendster has a home page with photos, a brief profile and photos of people to whom they have agreed to link. That person can then browse his or her network or search it for dates or activity partners.
Ms. Boyd says that the real world has a set of properties, which she calls architectures. With its deceptively simple set of features, her thinking goes, Friendster bends or replaces all of the real-world architectures.
For instance, when two people speak to each other, they assume their conversation is fleeting, but e-mail and instant messaging, by making that conversation persistent, offer a new architecture. When two people greet each other on the street, neither can see (nor hope to grasp) the range of the other’s social network. For that matter, no individual can see information about his or her own social network: who knows whom, and how.
Friendster offers a mix of architecture-changing tools and technologies: e-mail, a profile (which offers a persistent presentation of self) and a coarse representation of a social network. “Friendster is an architectural change,” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s not a mimicry of a change; it’s a total change.” Once the early users of Friendster discovered these new architectures, they began to play with them. That’s how Friendster evolved from a dating site into something else.
The basic idea behind Friendster and other social networking sites is not new. Neither is the technology, which is based on a business process patent from a 1997 site called SixDegrees.com that failed because too few people were online at the time. (That patent was recently purchased for $700,000 by two of Friendster’s competitors.) Jonathan Abrams, a 33-year-old dot-com survivor, conceived of Friendster as a dating site, but people’s social curiosity turned it into a place where everyone becomes the center of an unfolding drama (or comedy) of connections.
Ms. Boyd has found the site populated by a variety of subcultures: a large contingent of gay men from New York City, the Bay Area’s Burning Man scene, ravers in Baltimore. Porn queens and venture capitalists share the site with neo-Nazis and garden-variety hipsters. Most users are in their 20’s and 30’s. Many are overseas, particularly in Asia.
Bringing all those worlds together is not without its perils. “What social software like Friendster does is collapse our networks in ways we’re not used to,” Ms. Boyd said.
Devon Lake, 25, a high school teacher, discovered that this fall when she was bombarded with requests from former students to accept them into her Friendster circle, which she uses to keep in touch with her friends from Burning Man, the annual primal gathering in the Nevada desert. The potential costs of putting one part of her network in contact with the other part were too high, so she rebuffed her students and cleaned up her profile by removing anything that could be interpreted as a reference to drugs. “I’m a young teacher, so drawing that line is already a careful balancing act,” Ms. Lake said. “It made me feel on my guard about what I posted to the site.”
Ms. Boyd pointed to another consequence of the new architecture: people have expanded their Friendster networks with imperial gusto. Some create fake friends called Pretendsters. These are fake profiles generated at www.tree-axis.com and automatically posted to Friendster.com. According to the Tree-axis site, approximately 8,000 Pretendsters coexist with real people on Friendster.
The Pretendsters also skew the site’s user data. Currently 3.9 million accounts are registered at Friendster, though it is impossible to tell how many of those belong to real people. That’s why 2,619 of the Pretendsters have been hunted and terminated by Friendster Webmasters.
There have also been Fakesters, evidence of how contemporary Americans crave connectedness. Users composed profiles for their pets (and then connected their pets), their colleges (and then connected to their alma maters) and household odds and ends (and then watched the conversation that developed between “salt” and “pepper”). To Ms. Boyd it was interesting not only because people played with identity, but also because of the range of reasons they did so.
Apparently Friendster management could conceive of only one reason: to subvert the site. So it began terminating the Fakesters. That set off a Fakester revolution, complete with a manifesto: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all fakesters and real people are created equal.”
Ms. Boyd’s favorite story to emerge from a summer spent interviewing Fakesters was about two young men who invented a woman. Her name was Sarah Tuttle. “We wanted to make a woman to write introductions for us,” encouraging other Friendster members to get in touch, said David Gartner, a 32-year-old marketing consultant. “We made her sort of confident, sort of sexy, all these things we wanted in a friend.” Mr. Gartner put up a photo of an ex-girlfriend’s midriff and made Sarah Tuttle a yoga instructor because, he said, “everybody in San Francisco is a yoga instructor.”
Sarah Tuttle (whose profile can be found at vsgoliath.com/photos/tuttle) never became the author of an introduction, but other men thought she was real, so they began sending her messages. “We ended up seeing the view of what it’s like being a woman,” Mr. Gartner said. “There was all this weird stuff about Scrabble,” one of the interests included in her profile.
Mr. Gartner and his friend responded only once to a man who seemed genuine. To their alarm, the man wrote back, prompting them to remove their creation from Friendster. Shortly afterward, Mr. Gartner met a real woman at a party and has been dating her ever since.
“The fact of the matter is that the space is being used in all those different ways,” Ms. Boyd said. “But Friendster is trying to cut off any behavior that is not in line with their marketing perspective and the idea that this is a dating site.”
Friendster’s founder, Mr. Abrams, contacted by phone for this article, said the demands of running the site were such that he had no time to comment. Ms. Boyd said that Mr. Abrams had rejected her advice. “He didn’t want to know anything that would help user experiences unless it has to do with dating,” she said. “At another point he told me that it was my type of people who were ruining the system, meaning the Burning Man, freak, San Francisco crowd.”
Would Ms. Boyd date his friends? “Oh, God, no,” she said.
Even though she’s part of the same network?
“Yeah, but it’s hard not to be,” she said.
This is another mistake that Friendster and other sites make, Ms. Boyd contends. The site is built on the premise that friendship is transitive; that is, that if A is a friend of B, and B a friend of C, then A can be a friend of C, too.
But friendship develops in social contexts, Ms. Boyd says; it doesn’t just flow through the pipes of a network. “Just because you’re friends with somebody doesn’t mean their friends are similar in the type of context you are with your friends,” she said. Unless the social networking sites adapt to how people need to use them, she said, the sites will not succeed.
A lively speaker sometimes inclined to pink hair, Ms. Boyd is part of a cohort of young scholars who are trying to come up with ways to describe these new social behaviors in the online environments in which they have grown up. She and her peers “are talking about this from an inside, embedded perspective,” said Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist at Intel Research who was a co-director of Ms. Boyd’s master’s thesis at M.I.T. “One of the challenges for them is, how do they analyze this thing they have grown up inside of?”
Ms. Boyd grew in up in Lancaster, Pa., and was introduced to far-flung virtual communities in the early 1990’s by her younger brother. Soon afterward, their mother wisely signed up for two Compuserve accounts. “It gave me an opportunity to talk to people who were far more like me than anybody I knew in real life,” Ms. Boyd said.
She said she comes to her research through experiences as a perpetual outsider. “I didn’t grow up in an elite community,” she said. “I was the daughter of a single mother. I grew up queer in a rural environment. I grew up as a woman in computer science. I grew up constantly negotiating these spaces where they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms.”
After studying computer science as an undergraduate at Brown, she turned to the social side of things at M.I.T., studying at the Media Lab and producing a project that visualized people’s e-mail networks.
Taking a year off from school, Ms. Boyd found herself in the Bay Area, hanging out with many of the people who were developing Friendster and other social-network sites. She began a blog to document what she saw; her critiques became useful; people began asking her — and hiring her — to do more.
The chief executive of one social-networking site, tribe.net, Mark Pincus, has sought her advice because she is involved in some of the groups to which his site tries to appeal. “Danah’s this researcher, but she also lives the whole thing — the Burning Man scene, the rave scene, the techno music scene,” he said.
Her academic supervisors are envious of her advantage. “I look at cyberspace the way a deep-sea diver looks at the sea: through a glass plate,” said Ms. Boyd’s academic adviser, Peter Lyman, a professor at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems. “She is out there swimming in it.”
Yet she is not so immersed that she uses Friendster for dating. “I’m not theoretically opposed to it, and if I weren’t studying it, I might think about it,” she said. “It’s a matter of not needing to mess with potential subjects. When I’m on the site, I don’t want to be thinking about who’s cute. I want to pay attention to the social behavior.”