"Haha, I have more friends than you."
The schoolyard taunt in my instant messenger box was pretty easy to dismiss. For one, it was coming from my 12-year-old cousin, who is always trying to find some petty way to get under my skin. For another, the taunt was based not on a deep, insightful discussion of our social lives, but from a quick perusal of our competing MySpace pages.
I was a latecomer to the MySpace craze, signing up primarily to view the profiles of a few close friends and family members. My cousin, on the other hand, had quickly made MySpace the center of her middle school social life. A quick conversation confirmed that her impressive-sounding list of 180-plus friends was comprised mostly of classmates she barely knew, random strangers that spammed her with friend requests and a few "friends" that were actually her friends in real life.
But all these mitigating factors didn't really help me shake the annoying feeling I got when comparing her massive friend count to the paltry dozen or so friends on my list. It was an unmistakable feeling at the pit of my stomach that would be familiar to any gamer with even a hint of ego - a feeling that combines the shame of failure and the shame of caring so much about something so trivial.
I felt like I was losing. At MySpace, of all things.
In a way, the web has always been a game. Anyone with an internet connection could participate by simply viewing a web page, raising the hit counter (score) of that site's creator. Advanced players could grab an HTML editor and some free web space and create a home page (avatar) that represented them in the online universe. The goal, as it so often is in life, is to gather more attention (links) and prestige (Google ranking) from your fellow players.
The social/collaborative revolution known as Web 2.0 didn't change the basics of this game, but it did make it easier to get caught in the virtual attention-seeking madness.
There has never been so many ways to categorize your popularity score on the web. MySpace doesn't just let you show off how many friends you have, but also practically forces you to rank your favorites in a personal "Top 8" list (leaderboard). Facebook lets people coalesce into groups (clans) of like-minded players, including many competing groups whose only purpose is to be the "largest facebook group ever." LinkedIn not only publicizes your professional connections (corporate buddy lists), but also keeps track of colleagues that are two or three steps removed from you. At some point, these networks look less like socializing platforms and more like Pokémon games. Gotta catch 'em all!