For many Americans, the Internet connection links directly to their love life. Using online dating services of various kinds, people have met, dated, had secret trysts, married, divorced-and started the process all over again. Never in the United States have there been so many unmarried people. And never have there been so many ways to do something about it.
The most direct way to go shopping online for a mate is through dating services, which, unlike in Japan, are used in America by all kinds of people, from executives to plumbers. But another kind of service has arisen as well: online social networks. Here, a friend invites you to join, and you, in turn, invite friends of your own. In the U.
Dating seems the principal theme of Friendster, less so at Orkut. At LinkedIn.
danah boyd (she spells her name in lowercase), a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying social networks in general and Friendster in particular. That service-which began with friends of the founder, Jonathon Abrams-snowballed. The first wave of participants invited their friends, who invited their friends, until a critical mass was formed. For people of the right age, in the right place, an online network of friends can be dense enough that new users often begin by looking up people they know, to see if they are online.
While dating services attract people of all ages, social networks have primarily succeeded among the people in their 20s and 30s. Maybe that's because older people already have their social network in place, or because they just aren't as willing to experiment with the medium. In any case, it's clear to boyd that online networks won't support a wide range of ages. "The 20-30 year-old population is not performing for the 50-60 year old population," says boyd, "and if their parents got on en masse, the 20-year-olds would get off." The same is true on Orkut, where 64 percent of participants are 30 or under.
boyd says that Friendster's demographics have taken some unexpected turns. For example, it has attracted Asian-Americans, who spread it back to their families and friends, primarily in English-speaking Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. She thinks that Asian social structures are a good match: more hierarchical and inter-connected than in the U.
Friends of friends-can you trust them?
Although Friendster started out for people looking to date, boyd says there's a substantial difference between it and a true dating service. Dating services give people a way to reach out into cyberspace to meet someone you've never met. Social networks are much more about the people you already know. "Social networks are selling the idea that friends of friends are a much more trustworthy group," boyd says. "The model is the cocktail party: you bring a bunch of people together, mix and match them, and hope something might come out of it."
But having hung out for a while on Friendster, boyd doesn't quite like the idea that online social networks are necessarily a safer way to meet people. "The assumption was that everybody would only link to their closest friends, which was the way they were going to sell trust. But that is not what happened. People link to anybody they recognize-close friend or distant acquaintances." If you are close to someone, that is, you have a "strong tie," chances are you'll find things in common with that person's friends. But if the person you know is just an acquaintance, their friends may be of little interest to you. "For instance: we've now had a conversation, proving we share some interest in this topic," boyd says.
Even with strong ties, says boyd, the trust factor only goes so far. You can really only place your trust in two degrees of separation: a friend of a friend. Beyond that-a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-and the link is too weak to count on. Moreover, as people expand their online social networks, they may find themselves associating with people whom they are trying to avoid in the real world. When two people list as their "friends" several people in common, but don't link to each other, they are probably ex-lovers or ex-friends. "They may have tons of friends in common, but they don't link to one another because there's some kind of tiff," boyd says.
One of the biggest differences between social networks and dating services turns out to be expectations. On Match.
As a result, people sometimes use Friendster in a way that provides more of the anonymity of a dating service. Some people do what boyd calls "travel dating," in which they temporarily switch their home location to the city you will be visiting, and see who is available. "The idea is to find a person for a one-time sex adventure," boyd says. The other is what boyd calls "hookups," where people try to date others with the maximum four degrees of separation allowable by Friendster-friends of friends of friends of friends. Here, the goal is to find people who are actually on the fringes of their social network, not in the center of it, so that they can carry on a relationship without everyone they know watching.
Finding new people
If people look to online social networks to mirror their physical social network, they go on dating services to do just the opposite-go reach beyond their immediate community in order to meet someone new.
"If you are looking for people who you want to date, then you don't necessarily want to look in your social network," says Andrew Fiore, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Social Media Group. Fiore has been analyzing the data from a mid-sized matchmaking site (whose name he can't disclose). At the time of his study, the site had about 175,000 users, about 60,000 active. Like other websites of its kind, you post a profile of yourself, search the profile of others-on your own or with the system's help-and send a message that goes to a private mailbox, enabling you to communicate more or less anonymously.
Fiore believes that social networks do provide some measure security. With a social network, "you probably won't get screwed over by people that you meet, because there is more-or-less accountability in the face-to-face world. On the other hand, you have less chance of meeting new people" because you reach beyond your usual circle of friends. A dating service can cut across social groups, and it attracts a wider demographic than a social network. Potential users include not only newly graduated college students, but divorced people, particularly single parents, who want to meet someone but don't have the time to do so in person.
Fiore thinks that dating sites can exert a strong influence on how people think of themselves, and about each other, when they are searching for a mate. Imagine, he says, a service that made the shape of your earlobes a search criteria. "Suddenly, people could search and sort people by whether their earlobes are attached or detached, and by how far do they hang down." That may be farfetched, but the fact remains that these sites define people according to terms they can put in the database and a profile. Doing so not only discounts the intangible chemistry that can happen when two people meet, but can be downright unromantic.
"A lot of the relationship building comes from constructing a shared intimacy that occurs gradually over time," Fiore says. If you know too much, too soon, the mystery is gone and the passion fades before the relationship takes hold. Of course, says Fiore, it can work the other way, as well. You may find out things you don't like about the person very quickly-and not have to waste your time.
People who date online also find out something else: everybody lies. Men lie about their height and income, women lie about their weight, and both lie about their age while posting pictures taken years earlier. Fiore says exaggeration is so endemic that you are at a disadvantage if you just tell the truth. But why would you want to start out a relationship on a fib? Fiore says that "people are much more willing to behave badly in online situations." Another reason is the nature of an essentially text-based connection between people. "When you are working in text I can completely control how I appear," says Fiore. "When I'm talking to you face-to-face, my body language, facial expressions and voice gives away a little bit of information that I don't necessarily intend to give.
But of course, the truth is eventually discovered because eventually, you have to meet. So the game is to not to overstate your qualities so much that the date is over before it starts. "You need to exaggerate enough to get to coffee but not so much that you can't get to sex--or any other long term goal you might have," says Dan Ariely, a professor at MIT
The presentation of self
One perpetual difficulty of social networks, as well as other online meeting places, is that you don't know who is reading your words. You may be describing yourself in one context, but your audience may be larger than you considered. "That's constantly a problem with online public presentations of self," says danah boyd. "Who are you actually writing for when you are writing in your blog? To yourself for the future? For the actual audience you know? For the extended audience who might be lurking?" You may think you are writing about your after-work escapades for your friends, but your parents might be reading, as well.
Even if your profile is clean, your friends' profiles may indict you. boyd describes a 26 year-old teacher whose teenage students asked why she did drugs. It turned out, her friends profiles indicated that they did. In real life, a teacher (at least in America) can separate classroom and personal life. Online, it's not that easy. To get around that problem, some people log on with a pseudonym that they reveal only to their friends. That gives them the social network they desire, with some privacy, as well.
Some people log in under pseudonyms; others invents entirely fictional characters. These fakesters" have presented another dilemma to social networks. The people who run the networks don't generally like the idea. But boyd argues that fakesters have their place. "Most people love the fake characters," she wrote in a research paper. "They become little hidden treasures in the network and people go seeking out the most creative ones. Fakesters that represent groups allow people to more quickly find one's friends and acquaintances." boyd argues that people can sometimes communicate better online in the guise of obvious fictitious roles. If you are "salt," she says, and I am "pepper," we may fall into a playful conversation that can turn serious later. Very interesting. The role of play in interpersonal relationships can be thought of as content in its own right - not 'content' in the usual sense at all.
With its meteoric success, Friendster has gown larger-too large for many of the people who first came there. In its early days, Friendster was like a small town, in which everyone is likely to know a substantial portion of the population. If you didn't know somebody, chances are that you still have a friend in common. Now, Friendster is more like Tokyo or New York. "The larger the population, the more likely the people you run into are of no interest to you," says boyd. The early adopters liked the service because "everyone on there was like them-they had the same cultural context. Now, they complain they have to wade through a ton of people whom they're not interested in-to find one person with whom they are."
Which is why boyd believes social networks themselves may be a passing fad. The 20- and 30-year olds who jumped onto Friendster may well get bored and jump right off again.
"And where will they go," I asked her.
"Back to real life."
Sidebar: Inside Orkut
If Friendster has turned into the big city of social networks, Orkut-Google's still-in-beta website-has aspired to be the hip nightclub where (at this writing) you need to know somebody inside to get in. The site fits in with Google's practice of launching new services slowly, calling them "beta" for months before officially linking them on its home page. Orkut was named after Orkut Buyukkokten, the Google engineer who invented it. The site does not explicitly say it's for dating-and according to the sites' demographic page, only 19 percent of its users are actually interested in finding romance online. Most (83 percent) are interested in friends.
Like Friendster, Orkut is the domain of the young: 41 percent are age 18-25, another 23 percent are 26-30. The numbers fall off dramatically after that. Nearly half the users are from the U.
If you look me up on Orkut, you will learn that I'm married, born in Los Angeles, like botany and hiking, and have a dry/
Like Friendster, Orkut has tried to deal with some of the unexpected twists and turns that come with running a social network. It has tried to ban fake accounts and is actively certifying accounts of people who it thinks are real. Orkut allows you to explicitly ignore some users and to turn down invitations to join a network of "friends," if that network doesn't appeal to you. Orkut has also tried to deal with the phenomenon of loose social ties by having not just friends, but "fans," who can rate you with a "karma chart" as trusty, cool, and sexy. More recently, Orkut allows you to specify the strength of social tie, distinguishing between a best friend, a good friend, an acquaintance-or someone you in fact have never met.