Social Media: Don’t Be a Stranger

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Illustration By Sebastien Thibault
Today's skepticism of online relationships would dismay the early theorists of the internet. For them, the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, from the privacy of our "electronic caves" was a boon to human interaction.

The Internet of 2006 was not much different than it is today, mainly less: a bit slower,
sparser, less open for business, like your hometown before the strip mall got
put in. It was on this internet that I met my best friend, Austin (not his real name). I was taking some
time off from college in Portland,
Oregon and had become an active
member of a Portland-based online DIY community called Urban Honking. Urban
Honking featured a stable of blogs about studiedly eclectic subjects like rap
music, vegan cooking, and science fiction, but I spent most of my time on the
message board, where a few dozen mostly twentysomethings traded music
recommendations and outlandish project ideas. At the time I was making stupid
comedy videos and I’d share them with Urban Honking as I finished them. Austin was also an active
Urban Honking poster, and a few months after I joined he sent me an email from
his Yahoo! Mail account. “Hey dude,” Austin
wrote, “I saw you on the UrHo message board and wanted to get in touch because
I like being funny and making videos.” 

When someone asks me how I know someone and I say “the
internet,” there is often a subtle pause, as if I had revealed we’d met through
a benign but vaguely kinky hobby, like glassblowing class, maybe. The first
generation of digital natives is coming of age, but two strangers meeting
online is still suspicious. What’s more, online venues that encourage strangers
to form lasting friendships are dying out. Forums and emailing are being
replaced by Facebook, which was built on the premise that people would rather
carefully populate their online life with just a handful of “real” friends and
shut out all the trolls, stalkers, and scammers. Now that distrust of online
strangers is embedded in the code of our most popular social network, it is
becoming increasingly unlikely for people to interact with anyone online they
don’t already know.

Some might be relieved. The online stranger is the great boogeyman
of the information age; in the mid-2000s, media reports might have had you
believe that MySpace was essentially an easily-searchable catalogue of fresh
victims for serial killers, rapists, cyber-stalkers, and Tila Tequila. These
days, we’re warned of “catfish” con artists who create attractive fake online
personae and begin relationships with strangers to satisfy some sociopathic
emotional need. The term comes from the documentary Catfish and the new
MTV reality show of the same name.

The technopanics over online strangers haunting the early
social web were propelled by straight-up fear of unknown technology. Catfish
shows that the fear hasn’t vanished with social media’s ubiquity, it’s just
become as banal as the technology itself. Each episode follows squirrelly
millennial filmmaker Nev Schulman as he introduces someone in real life to a
close friend or lover they’ve only known online. Things usually don’t turn out
as well as it did for me and Austin, to say the least. In the first episode,
peppy Arkansas
college student Sunny gushes to Schulman over her longtime internet boyfriend,
a male model and medical student named Jamison. They have never met or even
video-chatted, but Sunny knows Jamison is The One.

But when Schulman calls Jamison’s phone to get his side of
the story it’s answered by someone who sounds like a middle-schooler pretending
to be ten years older to buy beer at a gas station. Each detail of Jamison’s
biography is more improbable than the last. The only surprise when Sunny and Schulman
arrive at Jamison’s house in Alabama and learn that the chiseled male model she
fell for is actually a sun-deprived young woman named Chelsea, is how completely
remorseless Chelsea is about the whole thing.

But Catfish isn’t a cautionary tale about normal
people being victimized by weirdos they meet on the internet. Instead, Catfish
indicts the entire practice of online friendship as a depressing massively
multiplayer online game in which the deranged entertain the deluded. Catfish
is Jerry Springer for the social media age. Like the sad, bickering
subjects of Springer’s show, Sunny and Jamison deserve each other. 

Catfish has struck such a nerve because it combines
old fears of internet strangers with newer anxieties about the authenticity of
online friendship. “Friendship is devolving from a relationship to a feeling,”
wrote the cultural critic William Deresiewicz in 2009, “from something people
share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of
our electronic caves.” Catfish‘s excruciating climaxes dramatize this
argument. We see what happens when people like Sunny treat online friendships
as if they’re “real,” and the end result is not pretty, literally.

Today’s skepticism
of online relationships would have dismayed the early theorists
of the internet. For them, the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere,
from the privacy of our “electronic caves” was a boon to human interaction. The
computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider breathlessly foretold the internet in a 1968
paper with Robert W. Taylor, “The Computer as a Communication Device”: He
imagined that communication in the future would take place over a network of
loosely-linked “online interactive communities.” But he also predicted that
“life will be happier for the online individual, because those with whom one
interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and
goals than by accidents of proximity.” The ability to associate online with
those we find most stimulating would lead to truer bonds than real world
relationships determined by arbitrary variables of proximity and social class.

If Licklider was too seduced by the transformative power of
the internet, today’s social media naysayers are as well. To the Death of
Friendship crowd, the internet is a poison goo that corrodes the bonds of true
friendship through Facebook’s trivial status updates and boring pictures of
pets and kids. While good at selling books and making compelling reality
television, this argument misses the huge variety of experience available
online. Keener critics understand that our discontent with Facebook can be
traced back to the specific values that inform that site. “Everything in it is
reduced to the size of its founder,” Zadie Smith writes of Facebook, “Poking,
because that’s what shy boys do to girls they’re scared to talk to. Preoccupied
with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal
trivia is what ‘friendship’ is.”

Instead of asking, “is Facebook making us lonely?” and
aimlessly pondering big issues of narcissism, social disintegration, and
happiness metrics, as in a recent Atlantic cover story, we should ask:
What exactly is it about Facebook that makes people ask if it’s making us  lonely? The answer is in Mark Zuckerberg’s mind;
not Mark Zuckerberg the awkward college student, where Zadie Smith finds it,
but Mark Zuckerberg the programmer. Everything wrong with Facebook, from its
ham-fisted approach to privacy, to the underwhelming quality of Facebook
friendship, stems from the fact that Facebook models human relations on what
Mark Zuckerberg calls “The social graph.”

“The idea,” he’s said, “is that if you mapped out all the
connections between people and the things they care about, it would form a
graph that connects everyone together.”

Facebook kills Licklider’s dream of fluid “on-line
interactive communities” by fixing us on the social graph as surely as our
asses rest in our chairs in the real world. The social graph is human relationships
modeled according to computer logic. There can be no unknowns on the social
graph. In programming, an unknown value is also known as “garbage.” So Facebook
requires real names and real identities. “I think anonymity on the internet has
to go away,” explained Randi Zuckerberg, Mark’s sister and Facebook’s former
marketing director. No anonymity means no strangers. Catfish wouldn’t
happen in Zuckerberg’s ideal internet, but neither would mine and Austin’s serendipitous
friendship. Friendship on Mark Zuckerberg’s internet is reduced to trading
pokes and likes with co-workers or old high school buddies.

But what if a social network operated according to a logic
as different from computer logic as an underground punk club is from a computer
lab? Once upon a time this social network did exist, and it was called

Makeoutclub was
founded in 2000, four years before Facebook, and is sometimes referred
to as the world’s first social network. It sprung from a different sort of DIY
culture than the feel-good Northwest indie vibes of Urban Honking. Makeoutclub
was populated by lonely emo and punk kids, founded by a neck-tattooed
entrepreneur named Gibby Miller, out of his bedroom in Boston.

The warnings of social disintegration and virtual
imprisonment sounded by today’s social media skeptics would have seemed absurd
to the kids of Makeoutclub. They applied for their account and filled out the
rudimentary profile in order to expand their identities beyond lonely real
lives in disintegrating suburban sprawl and failing factory towns. Makeoutclub
was electrified by the simultaneous realization of thousands of weirdos that
they weren’t alone.

As the name would suggest, Makeoutclub was also an excellent
place to hook up. But because it wasn’t explicitly a dating service, courtship
on Makeoutclub was free of OKCupid’s mechanical numbness. Sex and love were
natural fixations for a community of thousands of horny young people, not a
programming challenge to be solved with sophisticated algorithms.

About three years before I met my funny friend Austin on
Urban Honking in Portland, Austin met his wife on Austin told me he joined
in 2001 when he was 21 years old, “because it was easy to do and increased my
chance of meeting a cute girl I could date.” You could search users by location,
which made it easy to find someone in your area. (On Facebook, it’s impossible
to search for people without being guided to those you are most likely to
already know; results are filtered according to the number of mutual friends
you have.) Austin
would randomly message interesting-seeming local women whenever he came back
home from college and they’d go on dates that almost invariably ended in no
making out. In the real world, Austin
was awkward.

Makeoutclub brought people together with a Lickliderian
common interest, but it didn’t produce a Lickliderian utopia. It was messy;
crews with names like “Team Vegan” and “Team Elitist Fucks” battled on the
message board, and creeps haunted profiles. But since anyone could try to be an
intriguing stranger, the anonymity bred a productive recklessness. One night,
around 2004, Austin
was browsing Makeoutclub when he found his future wife. By this time, he’d
graduated college and moved to Norway
on a fellowship, where he fell into a period of intense loneliness. He’d taken
again to messaging random women on Makeoutclub to talk to, and that night he
messaged Dana, a Canadian who had caught his eye because she was wearing an eye
patch in her profile picture.

“I had recently made a random decision that if I met a girl
with a patch over her eye, I would marry her,” Austin told me. “I don’t know why I made this
decision, but at the time I was making lots of strange decisions.” He explained
this to Dana in his first message to her. They joked over instant messenger for
a few days, but after a while their contact trailed off.

Months later, after Austin
had moved from Norway to New York City, he
received a surprising instant message from Dana. It turned out that Dana had
meant to message another friend with a similar screenname to Austin’s. They got to chatting again, and
Dana said she’d soon be taking a trip to New
York City to see the alt-cabaret group Rasputina play.
Dana and Austin met up the night before she was supposed to return to Canada. They
got along. Dana slept over at Austin’s
apartment that night and missed her flight. When Dana got back to Canada they kept in touch, and within a few
weeks, Austin
asked her to marry her. Today, they’ve been married for over eight years.

Dana and Austin’s
relationship, and mine and Austin’s
friendship, shows the Licklider dream was not as naïve as it appears now at
first glance. If you look to online communities outside of Facebook, strangers
are forging real and complex friendships, despite the complaints of op-ed
writers. Even today, I’ve met some of my best friends on Twitter, which is
infinitely better at connecting strangers than Facebook. Unlike the almost
gothic obsession of Catfish‘s online lovers, these friendships aren’t
exclusively online–we meet up sometimes to talk about the internet in real
life. They are not carried out in a delusional swoon, or by trivial status

These are not brilliant Wordsworth-and-Coleridge type
soul-meldings, but they are not some shadow of a “real” friendship either.
Internet friendship yields a connection that is self-consciously pointless and
pointed at the same time: Out of all of the millions of bullshitters on the
World Wide Web, we somehow found each other, liked each other enough to
bullshit together, and built our own Fortress of Bullshit. The majority of my
interactions with online friends are perpetuating some in-joke so arcane that
nobody remembers how it started or what it actually means. Perhaps that proves
the op-ed writers’ point, but this has been the pattern of my friendships since
long before I first logged onto AOL, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Makeoutclub isn’t dead either, but it seems mired in
nostalgia for its early days. This past December, Gibby Miller posted a picture
he’d taken in 2000 to Makeoutclub’s forums–it was the splash image for its
first winter. It’s a snowy picture of his Boston
neighborhood 12 years ago, unremarkable except for the moment of time it

“This picture more than any other brings me back to those
days,” Miller wrote in the forum. “All ages shows were off the hook, ‘IRL’
meetups were considered totally weird and meeting someone online was unheard
of, almost everyone had white belts and dyed black Vulcan cuts.”

At least the Vulcan cuts have gone out of style.

Adrian Chen is a
blogger and senior writer for
an editor at
The New Inquiry,
from which this article was reprinted (Feb. 13, 2013).
The New Inquiry is a website that
aspires to enrich cultural and public life by putting all available
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