I’m not much of a techie or apster or webie (are those last two things? Let’s pretend they are…), so I wouldn’t have known friendster, the pre-cursor to facebook, is now one of Asia’s largest gaming sites. In my day, where MySpace was for budding bands and arts-types to gain a following, friendster was the way for the Everyman to reconnect, to connect, and to meet. I was 19 and a sophomore in college when I made my frienster account. Prompted, I’m sure by one of my guy friends in the engineering/comp sci program who told me “social media is going to be huuuuge.”
I was old enough to remember AOL chatrooms and AIM profile pages (both of which got me into a fair amount of trouble), and so was just the right amount of skeptical about such public access to my avatar identity (I’m not sure privacy settings were really de rigeur yet.) But I also acknowledged that this “social media,” whateverthehellthatwas, could be a useful tool to expand my network of friends beyond my dormitory and lecture room walls.
I carefully curated my profile page, selecting pictures that played down more of my youthful features (those chubby cheeks and that slightly crocked front tooth), and emphasized an urban co-ed persona. An interest in arts and culture meant that it wasn’t long before I had new connections across NYC… who were mostly male, and reasonably eager for companionship.
And this is the point where I note that friendster was also the pre-cursor to OkCupid.
Jon friended me fairly soon after my profile went life. He was a 29 year old graduate student at NYU’s Tisch School, studying composition. Already, he had scored a musical adaptation of a play by Moliere that was having an off-Broadway debut. This seemed promising. Older, creative, and on his way. We began a short exchange that lead to sharing phone numbers. He lived on the Upper Westside, in fact, in an apartment on 96th and Amsterdam, not far from my college neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
He called me to make plans.
If you’re new to online dating, a valuable piece of advice I can share is: make sure you speak on the phone before you meet. The phone is the most awkward medium of communication — if you two can find a way to swap ideas without facial cues, you’re off to a good start. Also, if he has any irregularities in speech, a lisp or a stutter, perhaps, it’s better to know about it before you’re face to face.
Jon had a soft, effeminate voice that border-lined on creepy. But he took the lead — for our first date, we’d have coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a Columbia mainstay that was a stone’s throw from my dorm but also convenient for him — and that was appealing.
Confession: This date with Jon was not only my first internet-assisted date (even if it wasn’t a dating site that introduced us), it probably also qualified as my first real date. Like, as in, we’re not just friends or classmates going out and seeing what happens, but as in, here’s a guy promising to pay for my coffee because he’s shopping for a girlfriend.
I don’t know what was more intimidating — the fact that I had never actually seen this person in the flesh, or that I was going on my first first date.
To be on the safe side, I enlisted my then best friend and roommate Suki and our mutual friend Joanne. Their mission, which they chose to accept, was to be already stationed at the pastry shop. They were recon and undercover chaperons in case he was an ax murderer. We agreed on set hand signals that would relay “get me out!” or “I’m getting married!”
In person, Jon was as creepy as our phone conversation suggested. With nails longer and pointier than mine, and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week, he more closely resembled a bearded vampire than a future great composer (Amadeus was pretty sexy with that lion’s mane.) Conversation moved smoothly, but it wasn’t long before I was send my MAYDAY! signals across the room to my girls — the signal telling them to call me and fake an emergency.
There was a pillar. They never saw me.
2 hours later, he paid for my coffee and I bid him farewell…
When he called me the next day to offer to take me to dinner, I politely declined. A few hours later, I closed my friendster account… and my MySpace account. I was done with social media for a while (a few months later, Facebook spread to all the Ivy League schools and I was quick to hop on the bandwagon), and it would be years later before I trusted the internet to play matchmaker.
I never joined a social media site to meet a lover just as I never started blogging to find a (rich) husband. And while Jon might have been an overall fail, I owe him and that whole experience a certain degree of gratitude. It dared me to take a risk with my social life… and always have back-up in plain sight.