Don't Be a Stranger

Social media keep old friends close, but the Web used to be for strangers

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 twenty-somethings 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 we met up for a drink I found that Austin was about a foot taller and half a dozen years older than me, rail-thin, heavily-bearded and married. Standing next to each other, we formed the punch-line of a visual gag. We hit it off instantly, and he remains one of my closest friends—a friendship which, now that I live across the country in New York, largely exists through Gchat and email.

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 are coming of age, but two strangers meeting online is still suspicious (with the exception of dating sites, whose bare utility has blunted most stigma). 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, cyberstalkers, 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.

“The chance of us meeting, and the connection we built is really something—once in a lifetime,” Sunny says. 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. By lowering the stakes from death or financial ruin to heartbreak, Catfish can blame the victim as well as the perpetrator. The hoaxes are so stupidly obvious from the beginning that it’s impossible to feel empathy for targets like Sunny. Who’s really “worse” in this situation: The lonely woman who pretends, poorly, to be a male model on the Internet, or the one who plows time and energy into such an obvious fraud? 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. Recently, an army of op-ed writers and best-selling authors have argued that social media is degrading our real-life relationships. “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 on-line 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.

Obviously, we do not today live in a wired utopia where, as Licklider predicted, “unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth forever,” since everyone would have a job maintaining the massive network. But 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 Lidlicker’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.

“A computer is not really like us,” wrote Ellen Ullman, a decade before the age of social media. “It is a projection of a very small part of ourselves; that portion devoted to logic, order, rule and clarity.” These are not the values associated with a fulfilling friendship.

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 Nobody much talks about these days, because in technology the only things that remain after the latest revolution changes everything all over again is the heroic myth of the champion’s victory (Facebook) and the loser’s cautionary tale (MySpace). Makoutclub didn’t win or lose; it barely played the game.

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.

With Makeoutclub, journalist Andy Greenwald writes in his book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,

Kids in one-parking-lot towns had access not only to style (e.g., black, black glasses), but also what books, ideas, trends, and beliefs were worth buzzing about in the big cities. If, in the past, one wondered how the one-stoplight town in Kansas had somehow birthed a true-blue Smiths fan, now subculture was the same everywhere. Outcasts had a secret hideout. was one-stop shopping for self-makers.

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 updates.

These are not brilliant Wordsworth-and-Coleridge type soul-meldings, but they are not some shadow of a “real” friendship. Internet friendship yields a connection that is selfconsciously 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 is perpetuating some injoke 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 twelve years ago, unremarkable except for the moment of time it represents.

“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.