A few months ago I opened a MySpace profile (see sidebar for link.) If you've spent anytime at all on MySpace you probably have an idea of what an odd, sometimes sad, little universe it can be. USA Today recently ran an article about some of the MySpace weirdness entitled "Meet My 5,000 New Best Pals." Here's a bit of it:
Brittnie Sarnes has 5,000 MySpace friends. Actually, make that 5,036. At last count, anyhow. About 10 people a day ask to "friend" her.
Usually she says yes.
She knows they're total strangers, but it doesn't matter. Each time she's asked, it feels "kinda cool — like 'Oh, this person thinks I'm cool enough to befriend me,' " says Brittnie, 17, of Columbus, Ohio...
Friendship always has been a tricky game, especially for teens. But in the past it was played out in school hallways, on playgrounds and in late-night phone calls.
These days it is happening in full color on the computer screen — often in front of the world. And it can be confusing, especially for teens trying to fit in.
How many friends should one have? What kind of friends should they be? Are online friends "real"?
Does it help boost self-esteem, or might it be harmful?
There are no rules...
Competition for friends can be so fierce that ad-supported websites are cropping up. They plug you into a system where you can start automatically generating friends — or where you can generate fake friends — to make lists look fat.
And last October, a 19-year-old calling himself "Samy" took credit for writing a computer worm that automatically generated friends on his MySpace page.
Some say overly long lists can smack of desperation.
When Georgia Bobley, 18, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sees a page with more than 500 friends, she thinks "it's a little creepy."
But having too few friends might mean you're not very popular. "When I go onto somebody's Facebook profile, and they have four friends, I'm like, 'Oh, my God. What? They only have four friends?' " She has 329.
Brittnie won't friend anyone with fewer than 150 friends; it means "nobody likes them."
But Valerie, who has 1,327 friends, says she will sometimes ignore list length for the right reasons. If she encounters someone with "only 12 or 20 friends, but they seem like a cool person, I'll start a conversation with them, and I will still treat them like someone who had a thousand friends or something. They could've just started their site, too."
Then there's the issue of the kinds of friends you keep. Make friends with too many losers, and you might find yourself on the other side of a virtual closed door.
If, for instance, a person friends bands (on MySpace you can friend actors, bands, movies and even commercial characters) that "suck," Brittnie says, "then that person probably does, too, and you probably don't want to add them."
She has other standards: "The other day I got a friend request, and it was a picture of like this dude's (genitals). I didn't add him."
But mostly, for Brittnie and a lot of others, friending is a kind of game. She'll ask to friend someone "like if you come by somebody's page, and you're like, 'They seem cool; I like their hair.' Or, 'Oh, he's hot,' then, you know, you just add them in hopes of maybe they'll talk to me, and we can become best friends. Or maybe they won't."
For others, though, especially younger teens, it's not a game.
"There are lots of kids who go there looking for friends because they don't have them elsewhere," Aftab says. "And they'll find different ways of getting them. The standards may not be so high."
At its root, competing for friends and fighting for status is hardly new behavior, Aftab says. Kids have always judged each other by the friends they keep.
"If you're snubbed by somebody walking down the hall at school, it's not as obvious as if no one wants to be your friend on your profile. If the other kids think one of your friends is lame, and they start commenting to your site, a lot of kids will drop friends because they're seen as not cool by other kids."
It isn't just kids who are learning the rules or making them up as they go along. Take the perilous issue of the Top 8, which seems to trip up everyone at some point.
That's the top eight friends displayed by default on a MySpace page. The rule is, you put your most important friends on your Top 8. Except if you don't know the rule.
That happened with Bob Christianson, 40, of Hudson, Fla. Christianson originally got on MySpace to keep tabs on his 14-year-old daughter and quickly got hooked on the site, which he uses to date and meet people.
But recently, he had to post an explanation of his Top 8.
"Just so I don't offend anybody," he wrote, "I don't rank my friends, so if you're not in my Top 8 it doesn't mean that you are any more or less of a friend to me."
That kind of explanation may calm adults. But the Top 8 issue constantly causes teen angst, says Amanda Peters. "Some people get really anal about it. They're like, 'I'm on your Top 8, but why am I the eighth person? Like how come I'm not No. 2?'
"I think it's just really stupid. I'm not the only friend people have, so why should I have any say on who they have in their top whatever?"
Nevertheless, she understands what happens when Top 8 status isn't reciprocated.
"You could think you're misjudging the relationship. Which sounds really funny because it's such a small trivial thing. You could feel kind of sad, like 'Oh, I thought we were hecka close.' "