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Friendster creates a stir

by: Alexandra J Wall - Last updated: 2003-11-02


Big hit with Jewish people

Yasser Arafat’s favorite band is the Spice Girls.

“Besides being your average ordinary warmonger,” says Ariel Sharon, “I’m a really nice guy!”

The Messiah — who goes by Moshiach here — lists his favorite reads as the Torah, the Talmud and “five easy steps to planning a tax-sheltered IRA account.”

Welcome to the world of

The San Francisco Bay Area-based Web site of the moment — an online community for hooking up with people, either as friends or dates — is not meant to be an outlet for creative types to display their wittiness. But the above-mentioned “fakesters” — as people who create phony profiles are called — are one of the funnier aspects of the site.

Friendster isn’t Jewish, by the way, although its founder is. But it is being used by Jews all over as a way to meet other Jews, and talk about Jewish things.

Here’s how it works: You enter your vital statistics, favourite movies and TV shows, a photo and a pithy description of yourself. Then you establish links between yourself and your friends.

And that’s it — a universe of friends awaits you. You not only have e-mail access to your own friends but your friends’ friends and their friends, too. Someone like me, who has 49 friends on Friendster, has access to a network of more than 400,000 people.

Since its debut last March, it’s become a part of the Zeitgeist for the 20- to 40-year-old urban hipster crowd, growing to more than 2 million users. It’s gotten so popular, it’s spawned wannabe sites and even two parody sites: Enemyster and Fiendster.

“I met someone recently for the first time, and I recognized him from Friendster,” says Becky Hirschfeld, 21, a student at San Francisco State. “You go to a bar or a party, and…people are talking about it.”

It has also joined the search engine Google as a way to screen someone before meeting to find those skeletons in the closet, or at least his or her favorite TV shows.

Case in point:

Before I interviewed Jonathan Abrams, Friendster’s 33-year-old founder, I looked him up on Friendster. Turns out he had looked me up, too.

As happy as Abrams is about the success of his Web site, clearly he is rankled by the fakesters, and in fact has declared war on them. He was irked about a recent front-page article in newspaper SF Weekly that made them into more of a phenomenon than they are. To him, they serve no purpose; they only dilute the quality of one’s social network.

Nonetheless, enterprising Jews are using them to meet each other. And they’re also stirring up some interesting dialogue.

Profiles of people with “names” like Jewish, Camp Swig, Camp Newman and Camp Tawonga are among the more benign. Israel and Moshiach — with a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — are on Friendster, too, presumably also to connect Jews. (Moshiach’s interests: Re-establishing the dynasty of King David, rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, gathering together all the Jews from throughout the world to the land of Israel and directing all of them to properly observe all of HaShem’s laws.)

Jewish — really Ran Eyal, a 24-year-old Israeli living in Brooklyn — hoped to get all Jewish Friendster users to link to him.

Eyal said he was inspired by God — at least someone whose phony profile is God — who wanted to connect to every person, Jewish or not, on the site.

It worked. At its height, Eyal said, there were about 800 Jewish Friendster users linked to him. “People really liked it that it said ‘Jewish is your friend,’” said Eyal, who posted a Magen David as his photo.

But Friendster management was not amused, and Jewish was shut down. Even God wasn’t omnipotent. She, too, was shut down. Eyal started again, but his Magen David photo was refused.

(Though Friendster has a policy about using copyrighted images, that rule is broken all the time. Many a Hollywood celebrity’s photo is on Friendster.)

For now, Eyal has a new Jewish profile in operation, with his own photo in front of a Magen David. This time, he’s only linked to about 40 people. “When they find out, I’m sure they’ll close that one, too,” he sighs. “I don’t understand why they removed it. It didn’t do any harm to anyone.”

Eyal’s Jewish profile inspired Israel — really Dave, a dual Canadian-Israeli citizen in Montreal who didn’t want to divulge his last name (he didn’t want anyone questioning his legitimacy in representing the Jewish state).

Dave, who attended college in Israel and served in its army, created the profile because “I had just witnessed mega-amounts of anti-Israel demonstrations and rhetoric, and I thought it would be a nice way for people to express positive sentiment about Israel and network about Israel in a nonpolitical, nondenominational, friendly kind of way.”

Then he adds, “And it also was a great way to meet babes.”

When Dave — er, Israel — receives a request from someone wanting to befriend him, he says yes, as long as that person recognizes Israel’s right to exist. “It doesn’t matter if you’re critical of Israel, are left or right. As long as you recognize its right to exist, you can be a friend of mine,” he says. But he did turn down someone else posing as Israel, with a tank in front of its flag.

Dave says he gets up to 20 messages a day from people who want to vent about the Middle East. The majority are positive, and he answers them all, he says. “We have conversations about eating shwarma.”

But not all the messages are so polite. “I get three or four a week that are just nasty-ass, white supremacists or fundamentalists of one stripe or another,” he says.

Along with the Israels and Gods, has about 50 incarnations of Jesus Christ, Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat — who “reveals” he’s in an open marriage, his occupation is a professional terrorist and his interests are killing Jews and skydiving.

And more than 20 versions of Adolf Hitler have been on the site, though most have met the same fate as God and Jewish.

One Adolf (who didn’t want to give his real name and whose profile has since been purged from Friendster), says he’s no fan; he created the profile because “I’m mocking him.

“I’m not promoting Hitler’s views. Obviously, people are gonna get a bit wound up. So be it.”

Despite all the fuss about the fakesters, most of Friendsters users — like Israel’s Dave — see the site as a way to meet people.

“I’m totally anti-JDate, because with JDate, there is no way to tell if somebody is as unusual as me,” says Michelle Levine, 32, an editor who recently moved from Oakland to Tucson, Ariz., of the most widely used Jewish dating site.

“I like extroverts, people who are overly gregarious like me. On Friendster, you can find people with totally wacko personalities.”

She and others believe traditional Jewish online dating services — with their lengthy essays that begin with “In my last relationship I learned that communication is key!” — may suffer as Friendster’s success grows.

Ori Neidich, a 26-year-old film student and San Francisco native now living in Los Angeles, dislikes JDate for its "cookie cutter categories. “When you meet people in the real world, they don’t have signs around their necks saying ‘I want children by age 32.’ You meet them by common interests,” he says.

Both Levine and Neidich point out that JDate users must check off attributes about themselves, which they think stifles creativity and individuality. Neidich complains, “JDate makes me look like Nice Jewish Boy No. 724.”

And just two weeks ago, JDate began charging for services that once were mostly free.

As a result, Robert Strong, a 31-year-old San Franciscan, set up a profile on Friendster called JewishandSingle to connect single Bay Area Jews. Already, he has 65 friends, many of them former JDate users.

“JDate is not as functional now, so I’m just giving an alternative that’s free,” he said.

And while safety has been an issue in online dating, with Friendster it’s minimized if you’re truly meeting friends of friends. David Sikes, a 27-year-old San Francisco lawyer, hasn’t used Friendster for dating but would consider it because “it’s like people come pre-verified. It lowers the bar in terms of comfort level for people.”

That’s because Friendster also has a testimonials section. Not only can users read how a person represents herself, but — even more telling — they can read what her friends, enemies or even exes have to say. Testimonials can range from those totally in jest to the cloyingly sincere.

“If people are complimenting you on being the party animal,” says Barak Ben-Gal, a 27-year-old getting his MBA at Stanford, “it means I want to go out to a club with you but not date you.”

While Ben-Gal says he doesn’t believe everything he reads in the testimonials, he still thinks they say a lot. “There are themes, sometimes, like being loyal friends,” he says. “Those are nice qualities to look for. When you read something like that, it’s a different experience because it’s not something you would write about yourself.”

Among the many glowing things Ben-Gal’s friends say about him, the more memorable are, “He has a lovely pair of ears,” according to friend Claire. Adds Lija: “You can’t not LOVE Barak. The guy is a true gem. After all, not many guys can discuss non-market strategies after having just done the Club Med ‘Hands Up’ dance with a room full of strangers.”

But if you’re using Friendster as a way to find other Jews to date, it’s not always so easy. Entering the term “Jewish” on the site’s search engine will only bring up those members who list Jewish things as one of their interests; there’s no field for checking off your religion, nor is there a place to say if you want to meet other Jews.

Abrams points out that his Web site’s main goal is networking, not dating. “If you want to look up any Jew on the Internet, you can use JDate,” he says.

But, acknowledging some people want to date within their religion, he’s quick to point out that new features will be added soon, including fields where people can list affiliations such as where they went to school, or their religion.

Sikes used the site to reconnect with most of his freshman dormmates at U.C. Berkeley. He’s also connecting alumni of UAHC Camps Swig and Newman with his two profiles named, appropriately enough, Camp Swig and Camp Newman.

Sikes has been having a gas with the testimonials.

“Swig, you think you’re so great,” writes Camp Newman. “I think you’re just the runt of the UAHC Camps litter. I mean, you’re built on a faultline, for G-d’s sake. Just because you have the original CIT [counselor-in-training] and Avodah cabins does not mean you are as nice of a camp as I am. Loser. Love, Camp Newman.”

Swig offers this retort, on Newman’s site: “You are too hot, too mosquito-y, and you look like the ‘Dirty Dancing’ camp. Nice asphalt, buddy. And please — Santa Rosa? That’s a great drive. Only you would voluntarily choose to live next to Petaluma. Enjoy the traffic on the 101 — you sure spend enough time in it. Punk.”

Only in the world of Friendster can one area Reform camp make fun of the other.

First published in J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
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Copyright 2003 - San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc.