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With friends like these...

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I'm now friends with Jim Shapiro. That's right. Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro: telelawyer supreme with the trademark bark of an empowered nerd.

            I hadn't been part of the ultra-hip online community of Friendster.com for three days and already I was buddies with a celebrity in a population of about 1.5 million users.

            Friendster was created a few months ago by Jonathan Abrams. Have a starving social life? Just do what Abrams did: Create a free, voyeuristic online dating service that's more addictive than homestarrunner.com. You log in, create your profile, upload a picture or two, and off you go.

            Friendster is really all about the gallery. When you make new friends, their gallery gets lumped into yours, and so on and so on. Then you can start perusing your freshly fattened gallery for potential dates, groupies, stalkees, whatever. Once you add a friend, the polite thing to do is write a testimonial about your new pal ("BECKA IS A SWEETIE!"). Soon they'll return the favor, and it's back to cruising the gallery.

            When The Hammer added me to his loop, I went from a discouraging gallery of 0 to one of about 90,000 citizens. Suddenly I'm checking computer screens at home, work, and friends' houses. I was finding profiles of people I recognized from the grocery store, concerts, and the sidewalks of Park Avenue, people who always seem to be on the periphery of my social circles.

            So you get a little community growing in Friendster's cyberspace; countless little pockets of six degrees of separation. The site has grown from Abrams' polite dating service to a networking force: wired.com reports that some of the more prominent pockets are for sale on eBay. Indie rockers Phantom Planet have their own profile and announce their new album's impending release; the tireless Andrew W.K. seems discouraged in his profile that he can't add more friends (a new 500-friend limit), but promises to create an additional profile called Andrew W.K. 2 to cull more fans; Living Colour lead singer (and personal savior) Corey Glover made my decade by adding me as a personal friend, giving me quite the Seinfeld-Keith Hernandez complex.

            "I think what makes the site interesting is that it's not just a dating site," says Charis Shafer, a local friend I hadn't talked to in a while but found while browsing galleries. "You could make it that, but mostly it's just a fun way to keep in touch and see how you're related to people. I'm connected to another Charis who lives in California, which is creepy. What's more creepy is that we're connected by about four people. I'd rather have more friends than lonely guys hitting on me."

So things at Friendster HQ must be peachy, right? Not exactly. Abrams has a big problem with the not-so-elusive Fakesters. Turns out Friendster's Jim "The Hammer" is not the real lawyer but a phony profile, a Fakester. With bogus profiles, Fakesters like The Hammer have invaded the site en masse and, if you believe Abrams, subverted the purity of his dating service.

            Jesus, for example, is everywhere on Friendster. So are famous dead folks like Kafka and abstract ideas like War. Pizza (occupation: "making people fat") lists Pretzel (interests: "mustard") as one of its friends. I found six Pootie Tangs, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and the planet Jupiter.

            Most Friendster users seem nonplussed by Fakesters. Friendster, however, would rather eradicate them all and see in their stead someone like, well, Jonathan Abrams, whose own profile --- at least an earlier version --- is on the "tour" page the site uses to entice newcomers. His head is tilted in that "hey baby" come-hither position, looking sensitive, and --- gulp --- wearing a lei. He lists his favorite bands as Metallica and Jack Johnson, "sleep" as an interest, and has a cache of friends who look intelligent, have taken nice pictures of themselves, and look like the mainstreamers Friendster wants to be known for.

            It must be difficult, then, for Abrams to delete the Fakesters when he sees someone like the charming Minty, a Realster whose profile reads like a Fakester: "Someday I will rule this world as Minty Starlight, Queen of the Universe, Empress of Earth, Conqueress of Mars, Gladiatrix Supreme of the Solar System, Ancient Planter of Pegasi 51, Mother of the Galactic Empire, et cetera, et cetera. My army of sexy anarchist robots, piratical peoples, electric sheep, and evil fascist clowns shall spread my will to you heathens."

            "I don't consider myself a Fakester," Minty says via email. Still, she worries that participating in this article could lead to her expulsion from Friendster: "They haven't been nice to semi-mortals either."

            Of course, Abrams' hard line against Fakesters has turned a lot of Friendster's biggest advocates against him. One such Fakester --- who I met through The Hammer --- found Abrams' profile in the early running, emailed the founder to extol the virtues of the site, but returned to his computer the next day to find his profile deleted. Fakesters once thought they were helping to make Friendster a diverse, eclectic community. When Abrams started deleting, they took offense.

            "People have been using their imaginations to make art," says the disgruntled Fakester via email. "There are many different kinds of Fakesters that serve many different purposes. There are [Fakesters posing as] places (cities, states, bars, neighborhoods) that help people find a specific place or who are interested in what that place represents (like a popular lesbian bar).... We all serve functions."

            Rochester has a profile. So do Wegmans and the local hideout Lux.

            Fakesters have united in wreaking all kinds of havoc, from flooding Friendster with fake profiles of Abrams to creating Red Herring Fakesters that throw Friendster off the scent of more elaborate Fakesters. Their own website --- which is always crashing due to the high amount of traffic it draws --- documents their media attention and circulates their manifesto.

            Fakesters pose no substantial threat to the Realsters on the site. When users looking for dates grab at names in the search engine, it's not like they're searching for Suge Knight or Speak-n-Spell. And everybody is lying to a degree; the old cliché of padding the personal ad applies on Friendster.

            "Like people are really putting what they do for a living on here," Charis says. "A lot of answers are just intended to be ironic. It's all about trying to make people think you're so above it all, which no one is because they're on the site in the first place. My friend put his favorite composer up as one of his pictures."

            In the end, though, Friendster is Abrams' site. So he gets to do what he wants. There have been rumors that users will soon have to pay a fee. And with all the publicity the site has gotten, it will no doubt get too "mainstream" for the old-schoolers, some of whom are already migrating to other copy-cat sites. And let's face it: Novelties wear out. The time to enjoy the site is now. It may be your only link to the friends you've always wanted, be they real or Jim Shapiro.

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