Let's begin with an exercise. First, name the eight most important people in your life - friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s.
OK, so, you're either lost in terrifying flashbacks of middle-school cruelty - or you've already made such a list, already showed it to all your friends, and since you didn't make all their Top 8s, you've already deleted the offenders from your list (and prayed they noticed). In other words, you're already on MySpace.com or one of the many other social networking Web sites such as Facebook.com or Friendster.com, doing your best to navigate this complex new world of friends-of-friends-of-friends-etc. with as few social casualties as possible.
If the Internet was once ungoverned by etiquette, those days are gone; MySpace and its peers, by many accounts the future of the Net, are rife with discussions of good manners versus unforgivable faux pas. There isn't an aristocratic class, just yet, but you can see the lines forming in the sand, renegades and bad boys posting bulletins pell-mell, uploading risque pictures, collecting "friends" as if it's all some big popularity contest - while mannered netizens look on disapprovingly. Screw up and you just might get dumped, online and off.
J.D. Funari is hoping that clarity prevents offense. A week after logging onto MySpace, the 24-year-old TV editor from Studio City posted a disclaimer above his Top 8: "Since this 'preferred' listing of friends can quickly become unnecessarily political, I'd like to briefly explain my sorting technique," he wrote.
"The first spot will always be my brother (for obvious reasons), and the second spot will always be my friend Katie (for reasons obvious to Katie and I). The third and fourth spots are reserved for music and movies of interest. Five and six are wild-cards which may be related to how well I know the person and/or if I'm dating them (opposite sex only) and/or if they've paid me for inclusion. The final two spots are, to be perfectly honest, the two most attractive current female photos from my list of friends."
MySpace profile pages are customizable in many ways; you can add pictures, music, write blogs, list your interests or skip all this entirely. You can allow friends to jot comments directly onto your page, viewable by all, or you can retain absolute control. But try as you might, you can't avoid classifying your relationship status, which isn't always easy to do.
After the Top 8, relationship status causes the most ire in the MySpace world.
"It gets highly dramatic," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying the culture of social networking. "Sometimes one person thinks they're single while the other person thinks they're dating."
What results is an inordinate amount of "swingers," an allowed choice that's sufficiently deviant for teens, ironic for adults (minus actual swingers) and has quickly become socially acceptable within the MySpace mainstream. Still, there remain many conventionalists who choose "single" or "in a relationship," and watch their physical and digital worlds intertwine.
Five months ago, 27-year-old James was "in a relationship," according to his MySpace page. Then James, a New York public relations executive who declined to provide his last name, broke up with his girlfriend and switched to "single."
In the real world and online, James and his ex remained friends, so when James started dating another woman, he didn't want to rub it in his ex's face. He delicately broached the MySpace topic with the new girlfriend, and they agreed not to switch their designation to "in a relationship" just yet. So: single online, together off.
In this case, James and his girlfriend were making the safe assumption that their exes engage in "MySpace stalking," the practice of secretly keeping tabs on friends, lovers, co-workers, celebrities or complete strangers by reading their profiles.
In February, James hit gold. He came across a Web site, Whospyme.com, which gave users the ability to watch the watchers. Unlike the dozens of hoaxes circulating throughout MySpace, this one actually worked. "It showed who visited my page and the exact time they visited. One girl, an old friend, checked it almost every hour." James was omniscient for nearly two weeks until MySpace blocked Whospyme, returning him to darkness.