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Brand friends

An aspect that sometimes gets overlooked about MySpace -- one which comes up in NYT Magazine story about self-branding -- is that profiles aren't limited to people. Often people set them up not only for their bands or their companies or their projects or the cliques or whatever, but also for fictional characters from TV shows and movies, for abstract concepts, for historical personages. Befitting the essential narcissism of the Myspace page, one can make a friend list that is merely an extension of the self-definition aspect of one's profile -- it reveals nothing about one's flesh-and-blood friends, just more about what one likes, what one thinks is cool or funny.

You can compile friend lists that contain no actual humans but instead are composed entirely of brands, concepts, and fake people. This has the unsettling effect of suggesting that our social networks really do consist of little more than the manufactured products that populate the world we share, things that once used to merely facilitate contact between people. We talk about people we see on TV, or places we've been to shop, sales we have witnessed, in order to have something to talk about with each other. This stuff is the substance of our common culture, and friendships likely couldn't blossom without it, for better or for worse. For friendships built online, where local concerns and the incidents of everyday life don't come into play so much, these sorts of things are even more important -- likely lots of such friendships are built out of some specific enthusiasm for some piece of culture, a passion for some band or some writer or some book or some show. Now that piece of culture is a MySpace friend.

MySpace, by letting us befriend the concepts directly, pushes this phenomenon to the next level and eliminates the need for the actual conversation between people. Rather than talk about them, you can just add Old Navy and characters from your favorite Saturday Night Live skit to your friend list. When the add occurs, when Nigel Tufnel adds you as a friend, you can feature it on your main page and it is as though you've had a comraderie-bulding conversation about Spinal Tap with everyone in the world who might happen to see your page. This elevates the buttons and patches one might have put on a denim jacket to the conceptual level of "friend." By this process, you've made friend-building chit-chat into a kind of broadcasting, using the symbols available in the MySpace universe as "friends" as a new, simple language that anyone else using MySpace immediately understands. If you're really clever, though, I suppose you become the first to create a profile for some fictional creation that you know will have a following. And then you get the gratifcation of knowing your cleverness has been appreciated everytime that your profile for, say, Leo Johnson or Mr. Lahey or Rerun gets friend requests. But the friend list, thrown open to brands and concepts and fictional characters and the like, becomes a groomed inventory of well-designed niche products; it loses all relation to an organic evolution of people who know and like each other.

So in our social networks, our flesh-and-blood friends get pushed to the back to make room for the pop-culture emblems that are truly significant, that more people can recognize and appreciate. Who really cares if you are friends with Jim or Jane or whoever. But if your friends are Sponge Bob and Babe Ruth and Alexander Graham Bell, strangers drifting by your page will at least know who they are. And other people who thought it would be funny to be Spionge Bob's friend will now be able to find each other and share their special sense of humor. If you want, you can limit your friends to ideas, images, concepts, brands that are known to be cool, or at least disguise your mundane actual friends in among the thicket of coolness. Thus the idea is disseminating in our culture that you can be friends with a brand, that a brand's demonstrable influence in our culture (its coolness) makes it powerful and charismatic and compelling, something you would reasonably want to be friends with. This is what marketers mean when they talk about a brand's "personality." In a recent BusinessWeek article about new-media advertising, a Nike executive explains,"A strong relationship is created when someone joins a Nike community or invites Nike into their community." Brands want to be both your friend and the medium in which friendship can take place. They want to infiltrate at the micro and macro levels. I'll never understand what would drive someone to join an online marketing community, to be part of Planet Pepsi or whatever -- maybe it's a deficit of imagination on my part that I can't see the fun of hanging with other people under the auspices of some consumer product. What do you talk about in a Nike chat room once the fascinating subject of athletic shoes is exhausted? Are the friends you make via a shared passion for consumerism ultimately worth having? (Do we have any choice anymore?) It's like the CEO of Coca Cola said, his company is not in the business of selling sweet drinks, but is in fact a media company selling brand impressions -- Nike isn't selling shoes; it's selling community, and the community you used to think came naturally, for free, by virtue of the default localness of your existence in a particular space and time, well, that's been invalidated. You have to buy community through your brands these days, and you can start by getting them on your official homepage 's friends list.

And what does it mean though to invite a brand into your community? Are all the existing relations you have with real friends altered by the new terms of friendship your intimacy with a brand establishes? Old friends reciprocate by acts of mutual affirmation and acceptance, of demonstrating interest in the substance of each other's lives, not because it is extraordinary or anything unusual but because its comfortable, and because the curiosity about each other has become habit. But the new kind of friend -- the brand friend -- reciprocates through mutual promotional gestures. So friendship generally, if it remains true to the technologies that facilitate it, will lose its texture and consist of nothing other than shout-outs going back and forth. The best way to be a friend will be to make sure his name gets out there. Perhaps soon it will be the only way.

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