MySpace allows false digital personas

features editor

We all have friends. Well, except for those crazy militiamen sending out mail bombs from their isolated shacks in the backwoods of Ohio. And lawyers.

Okay, let me rephrase that: We all want friends. Or at least the illusion of having friends — meaning most of us want to believe that everyone we have even the briefest of interactions with actually care whether we get dumped, if our parents die, or if we get a paper cut. Of course, that fantasy erodes the more we get to know people and realize that roughly 95 percent of those we come into contact with would hardly bat an eye if they learned we were run over by a train.

Essentially, this is why online relationships have become so appealing to even halfway normal people. They’re just personal enough to maintain the illusion of real friendship, but impersonal enough to keep us from getting too close to the human being on the other side of the modem.

MySpace, the website that has replaced Friendster as the virtual networking community du jour, has institutionalized this kind of fake companionship and turned it into a game. By putting up profiles and begging for attention, members collect friends like completely worthless baseball cards. The only requirement for inclusion on someone’s coveted “Friends List” is leaving the occasional ego-stroking comment such as, “Hey there, cutie/sexy/babe, you’re the man/woman/ undetermined gender,” or posting a sympathetic response to some whiny blog entry. It’s a way of quantifying popularity that doesn’t exist in reality.

But that’s not what’s particularly annoying about these services. It’s more that they’ve created an arena for people to foist an idealized and ultimately false version of themselves onto the public.

That has always been the hidden promise of the Internet. Through mostly anonymous high-speed correspondence, completely uninteresting people could transform themselves into intellectual Adonises (and physical ones, too, depending on how far they wanted to stretch the truth). It eliminated the nerve-racking spontaneity that goes along with actual human contact. Finally, unconfident hermits could shape their personalities to fit into whatever desired mold that’s precluded in the real world by their natural sociological flaws.

Yes, cyberspace was supposed to be an exclusive utopia for stamp collectors and guys obsessed with “Tron.” However, just like with “Star Wars,” the rest of the world caught on. Now, it’s not considered slightly freakish to develop a relationship via a computer. It used to be that putting a picture of yourself online seemed a bit weird, but today, practically everyone has at least one misleading photograph online, typically taken with a webcam at an odd angle with carefully positioned lighting.

Nearly everyone I know who has a MySpace profile, which at this point is nearly everyone I know in general, attempts to portray him or herself as something different than they actually are. Few out-and-out lie, but there is definitely some significant exaggerating going down. Usually, these acquaintances try to make themselves out to be uber-hip, sophisticated bohemians who worship Jack Kerouac, listen to Lou Reed, and absolutely do not watch television, unless it’s something appropriately snarky like “The Simpsons” or “The Daily Show.” Trust me, no one who enters my personal orbit could possibly be even moderately hip. I know for a fact that almost all these people were reading comics, buying NOFX CDs and ordering “Bum Fights” just six months ago.

It’s not just pretentious wannabe sophisticates on there, either. Plenty of dudes are using MySpace as another method of searching for girls and, possibly, a local kegger. Strangely, these brawny types don’t tend to distort their personalities as much as the wimpy beanpoles who claim they’re just looking for a screen name to have an intimate Instant Messenger chat session about Oscar Wilde with. They’re meatheads who want to show off their new typing skills, and they don’t care who knows it.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of hyperbolizing to be found amongst this faction of the MySpace population. For example, a friend of mine was the quintessential scrawny nerd with nutty Christian parents in high school. He got made fun of and picked on daily. Once he got to college, though, he became obsessed with morphing into a rugged outdoorsman. He started surfing, rock climbing, hunting bison with his bare hands, and so on. He began saying his goal was to get into a men’s fitness magazine. When he created his profile, naturally, the most important aspect of it was the pictures, which mainly depicted him in a constant state of shirtlessness, showing off his newly chiseled physique. He didn’t mention his nerdy past in his bio, but he did make a point of revealing his latest goal: To become a cage fighter.

So what does this matter? Isn’t it all an evolutionary step in the way we use technology in our lives? Or, at its most innocent, is this all just a harmless distraction?

Perhaps. But as more and more kids are raised using the Internet, the idea begins to seep into our culture that friendship is measured in hits to a website, that the only qualifier for being another person’s friend is the ability to scribble inane, sycophantic messages into a text box, and that we can lie about ourselves to earn someone’s camaraderie. When children can’t relate to each other out on the playground anymore, that’s when MySpace and its ilk become a problem.