For ’04 Contenders, a New ‘Friendster’ Factor

Posted September 26, 2003 at 5:33pm

Sen. John Kerry’s base of support has dropped by more than one-third. And Howard Dean might add those supporters to his burgeoning camp. But some of Dean’s supporters may defect to Wesley Clark’s camp.

No, it’s not New Hampshire. Not even close.

It’s Friendster — the latest Internet fad — and it’s adding a whole new dynamic to campaign politics.

The online networking site is a growing web of more than 1.5 million people who use the service to meet other people and keep in touch with friends. Now some obsessive users have thrown Democratic primary politics into the mix — some even with the blessing of the 10 contenders.

Here’s how it works: Friendster users create online profiles where they can post photos, individualize their self descriptions and express their interests. Users invite their friends to join the service who in turn invite more acquaintances — and a “personal network” is born.

Some users — all anonymously — have created profiles for several of the major Democratic presidential candidates. They then try to get as many friends as possible to join their networks.

It’s too early to say whether well-connected Friendster networks will yield votes for candidates next year, but one thing is for sure — Howard Dean has a lot of friends.

The former Vermont governor, who has made waves using MeetUp.com to build grassroots campaign support, is dominating the service. Dean actually has two profiles, making his network of 400-plus friends one of the largest on the network.

When contacted earlier this month about their candidate’s Friendster profiles, the majority of campaigns were unaware of their candidates’ presence on the network, including Dean.

But one Friendster user who controls the profile of one of Dean’s competitors on the network questioned the efforts by the people controlling the Dean camp on Friendster.

“Look at what Dean is doing. He’s sort of obsessive,” said the user, who didn’t want to be named. (Yes, even the fake candidates can be press savvy.) “This is supposed to be fun.”

Although some of the networks created on behalf of candidates include fictional profiles of international figures and celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Michael Moore and Fidel Castro (who were in Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s personal network as of last week), Dean’s whopping 400-some friends seem to be actual individuals and not “fakesters,” a term Friendsters use for those who create false network identities for national figures and pop culture icons, such as Judge Lance Ito, porn stars and Mrs. Poole from the ’80s sitcom “The Hogan Family.”

But like in real life politicking, Wesley Clark supporters could be siphoning off Dean supporters on Friendster. Just two weeks ago, Dean had more than 700 friends. But supporters of Wesley Clark posted at least three profiles of the former NATO allied supreme commander, and in just a week, they have brought together nearly 100 friends.

And with the once-expected frontrunner Kerry now falling behind Dean in New Hampshire polls, his online persona is taking a hit as well. Kerry’s Friendster profile, which had more than 130 friends last month, was down to about 30 two weeks ago. But Kerry had rebounded somewhat last week, counting 67 friends as of Friday.

Friendster’s growth has brought two candidates with low poll numbers to Friendster prominence: Kucinich and Florida Sen. Bob Graham come in second and third place, respectively, with about 200 friends each last week.

In fact, Graham’s campaign staff has actually become involved with the effort. It’s apparently the only campaign to do so.

Graham spokesman Jamal Simmons said members of the campaign’s Internet staff staked out a spot for the Florida Senator on the service.

“I think it will be an interesting place to communicate what we are saying in this campaign across the country,” he said. “Campaigns should be fun and interesting.”

Some think the nature of the site is perfect for grassroots organizing. “Dennis has always worked on a grassroots level,” said Lisa Casini, a media coordinator for the Kucinich campaign. “The Internet is a great tool to connect with people so his message can get across the country,” she said.

But not all the candidates are in the loop.

As of Friday, the online Friendster identities of Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun had yet to be claimed.

Meanwhile, the folks at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Friendster are watching their online experiment grow. Friendster Chief Operating Officer Eric Lindstrom said he didn’t expect politicking to emerge on the service when it was launched in March. But they’re going to see how things develop as campaign 2004 heats up.

“People have interests they share,” he said. “We let people deal with people with whom they want to deal with in the way they want to.”

Politically motivated Friendsters can be quite enthusiastic.

“You’ve gotta love Bob!” writes Joe, a Friendster user, in the section on Graham’s profile reserved for friends to write testimonials.

“He has the down-to-earth warmth of Reagan without the right-wing kookery. He has the foreign policy expertise of Bush Senior without the domestic policy idiocy. He has the Southern populist charm of Clinton with out the … well, we’ll keep it clean. AND HE’S A GATOR! This man, ladies and gentlemen, deserves to be our next president. Nuff said.”