Your space, not mine

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I want an online social network! You know, a group of friends with whom I can electronically share music and pictures and whimsical moment-by-moment observations. I'm only 40, after all. Hey! That's not too old to enjoy music and pictures. Plus, my 9- and 7-year-old kids keep me up to speed on all the latest online developments. So I'm hip.

Besides, online networking sites are clearly becoming the new front porches of American social life. Last year it was considered shocking when News Corp. paid $580 million for MySpace, the three-year-old granddaddy of social networking sites. Now Facebook, which has far fewer members, is reportedly for sale for a cool billion or more. If corporate cash is any indication, you have to have an online identity these days just to remain relevant.

So I set up a MySpace profile. Here's what happened:

The first thing I noticed was a big ad for singles, with a busty 20-something blond giving me a come-hither look. Since I'm divorced, I clicked on her and went down that alley for a while. No harm in that. I'm here to explore, right? Except I didn't have any time left to make online friends on my first MySpace day.

The next day, I got an E-mail alert: Somebody wanted to be my friend! Turns out she is a single mom who says she is looking for "my man LL Cool J and a nice good-looking Italian hottie." Well, that's not me, really. But I was flattered by her interest.

There were more where she came from. One woman who wanted to be my friend required a credit card payment, so I deleted her, but as I was learning, there are so many ways to connect on MySpace that you can pretty much write people off with impunity. A guy older than me —see, age is only a matter of attitude! —sent me a list of his blues band's scheduled performances. And boy, was he popular —he had 2,317 friends in his network. That's more than Bill and Hillary! Maybe a few of them could become my friends, too, I thought, as I trolled his online Rolodex. Most turned out to be teenagers, though, and I didn't want anybody thinking I was some kind of predator. Best to stick with my age group, I reasoned.

A woman around my age beckoned. But she was smoking a cigarette in all of her pictures-it looks much cooler in the movies-and she also seemed to be recruiting work-at-home employees for some kind of business she runs. Well, I already have a job. Next.

Then I heard from a pleasant-looking fellow who offered a friendly "Hello Rick" in the subject line. When I read the E-mail, he informed me that he'd like to sniff me in an awkward place after a hard workout.

Now really. I was hurt. I came here to meet upstanding citizens like myself, maybe discuss politics and children and wine and relationships. And I'm getting groped like this?

After two weeks on MySpace, my profile was looking pathetic. I had made precisely zero friends. It started to seem self-defeating: Who would want to make friends with somebody who has no friends? This was turning out to be worse than having no profile at all. I was advertising my social clumsiness.

So I've decided to regroup — and be honest with myself. I have to admit, I am not ready for MySpace. Here's why:

  • Membership fees are too low. MySpace is free, in fact. Which means everybody is allowed in. Hey, I enjoy the public, swimming in the great sea of humanity and all that. But randomly browsing MySpace feels kind of like riding the New York City subway — while you're in your own living room.
  • It's too much effort. To create an appealing profile that will lure quality people, I would need to decorate my space with wallpaper and cute moving icons and pictures of myself in all kinds of humorous poses. And also program some welcoming music that greets every viewer. After struggling with IT snafus all day at work, I'd rather pay my kids to do all this. Except I wouldn't dare let them see what's on MySpace.
  • I'm not enough of an exhibitionist. Check out a few profiles, and it becomes obvious: The people with the least clothes make the most friends.
  • I'm suspicious. Why would a married 39-year-old woman in Kansas, who's into gangsta rock, want to be friends with me anyway?
  • I'm intimidated. What if I become friends with somebody — and who starts sniffing me?
  • I've got enough friends. I didn't used to feel this way-we can all use a few more friends, right? But shopping for friends on MySpace reminds me of perusing the paint samples at Home Depot: There are so many options, in so many confounding, subtle gradations, that I just go home and decide to put off my home-improvement plans until later. So I think I'll wait a while before I wade back into Web society. With luck, my offline friends will stick with me a bit longer.
  • --Rick Newman