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Techsploits

The Truth About Wil

By Annalee Newitz

I LEARNED something dark and terrible about the universe last week: Wil Wheaton is not my friend. You know Wil--he's kind of a nerd cultural hero. He was the cute kid in Stand by Me, used to play annoying genius boy Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, runs a goofy, popular blog (www.wilwheaton.net) and has a couple of books about something or other coming out from übergeek press O'Reilly. And he's got a profile up on Orkut (www.orkut.com), the latest meaningless-relationship generator like Friendster or Tribe or myspace or whatever.

Because he's a geek celebrity, Wil's profile on Orkut has this funny comment about how he had to generate it so that somebody wouldn't create a fake one. I thought: Cool, here's a famous person who still hangs out with geeks on social networks and has a sense of humor. Then I added him to my friends list. I figured he'd do the honorable nerd thing and check out my profile, figure out that I've written a zillion things that he's interested in and become my Orkut pal.

But he said no. He didn't ignore me like Esther Dyson did when I friended her--a much more polite response, to my mind--but he actually saw who I was and checked "no" in a dialogue box asking if he wanted to be my friend. Then he added a line to his profile saying that he isn't going to friend very many people because he's "a dick." So now, thanks to Orkut, I know the truth: Wil Wheaton isn't my friend because he's a dick.

What kind of cruel social network would bring me such news?

Orkut is the first name of this Stanford grad who likes to dance and works for Google. At Google, a company whose work I respect and adore in a slightly irrational way, employees are encouraged to spend a certain percentage of their time on personal projects. Orkut decided to write a social-networking tool so that he could find nice people to dance with.

And Google saw that it was good and donated some of its massive server capacity to Orkut. And Orkut went live in a "beta" version (can somebody please find me a social network that isn't beta?). And the users saw that it was good, and pretty soon Danah Boyd was there analyzing and Brian Behlendorf was there open sourcing and Chris Palmer was there quoting Catullus, and Declan McCullagh was there showing off his sexy "face in shadow" picture.

But Orkut is evil. Not only did it teach me that Wil (Wil!) is a dick, but it actually embodies all my worst nightmares about where social-networking software will lead us as a civilization. Before I rant, however, allow me to confess that I am currently obsessed with using Orkut. The interface is lovely and intuitive, but more importantly, the people on Orkut (except for Wil) are interesting and friendly.

Nevertheless: the evil. Orkut invites you to rate your friends using karma points. On your friends list, you can choose to give each person a ranking based on whether you're the person's "fan," as well as how sexy and/or trusty and/or cool they are. For every "trusty" point you give, for example, a smiley face shows up on the friend's profile.

Even though this is an opt-in feature, everybody tries to suck up karma points. Nobody wants to have no smilies or other symbols next to their names. It makes you seem unpopular.

The friend karma system is quite simply hideous. I like the idea of naming people my friends, but I don't want to rank them in terms of anything. Friendship is not about hierarchy. It's about exchanging ideas and saying hello once in a while. Only a creep would rank their friends, and making those rankings an explicit part of the social network encourages the worst kind of cliquish, competitive behavior.

To make matters worse, the terms of service on Orkut say: "By submitting, posting or displaying any materials on or through the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide, nonexclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials." Yuck! That means Orkut owns all the information I post about myself anywhere on the site. Do they want my genetic material, too? That comes next. Then Orkut can add a little karma button for "racially pure." I can't wait.


Annalee Newitz (wilhatesme@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wonders if Wil is Orkut's friend.


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From the February 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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