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A Dud Dart in Cupid's Online Quiver?

By Alex Salkever

DUBIOUS PROPOSITION. Thompson says that despite some research on the subject there's no empirical evidence that dating friends of friends results in more successful coupling. In fact, friends may be counterproductive, because they think they know you better than they actually do. "Friends don't know systematically what matters," says Thompson. "Friends don't bring a lot expertise in dating other than good intentions -- and you know the old saying about where those lead."

Friendster also assumes that relationships between friends are roughly equal, which is rarely the case. This can make for uncomfortable situations, such as when Friendster members invite someone into their network who doesn't really want to be there. In the offline world, people can make an excuse not to come to a party. In the asynchronous online world, there's no viable excuse aside from the truth.

Telling the truth -- no, I don't want to be your friend -- is uncomfortable, so most people acquiesce. But the worth of networks built on such dubious or unwanted connections likely isn't terribly high. "I'll get friend requests from people I haven't spoken to in over a year," says Wade Tinney, a sometime Friendster user and co-founder of video-game company Large Animal. "It's hard to say no, so you don't, and maybe you catch up a little. But eventually you realize there's a reason I haven't spoken to that person, and that's because I didn't need them in my life," says Tinney. Much less, pay to share time with them.

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY COMPETITION. Friendster's approach also overlooks the fact that there are social costs to making an introduction. If a date goes horribly wrong, then the friend in the middle may feel the wrath of the other two. Moreover, dating is often a bloodsport driven by egos and sexual appetites. Lots of alpha-daters might be loathe to hook up their friends, much less friends of friends, with partners they may view as prospective mates for themselves. "Your friends are prepared to help you because they are your friends," says Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor and the author of Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age (Norton, 2003). "But we are also competitive with our friends, and sometimes we aren't prepared to help them."

None of this is to say that Friendster isn't a fascinating experiment -- one that legions of people find fun. The site continues to grow quickly. And maybe, in the not-too-distant future, some people will pay to participate.

My guess, however, is that the audience quirks that separate a Friendster from an eBay will make Abrams' baby a tough sell. That of course leaves selling advertising on the site as a way for Koogle, Thiel, Shriram, and the venture capitalists to recoup their investments. That could earn them a modest return. But I wouldn't bet on Friendster becoming the category killer that the elite of Silicon Valley seem to think it will be.

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