IM Someone: The Online Popularity Test

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

If all of life is like high school, at last we have the answer to the question that goes to the core of our id-driven, zit-popping, green-eyed insecurity:

Are you more popular, at this very second, than the person who's instant-messaging you?

Instant messaging, you will know, is the way tens of millions of Americans connect with their buddies faster than e-mail. Beginning this week, the 50 million users of AIM, America Online's version of instant messaging -- including nearly half of all Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 -- could perform a self-esteem check by visiting http://www.aimfight.com/. There you enter your AOL or AIM screen name and your friend's AOL or AIM screen name. Then you click "fight" to figure out who's got a bigger score -- as in who's better connected and more popular. You can almost hear the tap-tap-tapping on the keyboards right now.

Your popularity is based on who has you on their buddy list. There's a complicated algorithm at work here. Your score is measured to the third degree, in the sense of the "six degrees of separation" game that seeks to link anybody on Earth to any other person through no more than five friends.

Say a couple of your friends, A and B, have you on their buddy lists. A, who has three people on her buddy list, doesn't add much to your score. That's because she doesn't have as many people on her buddy list as does B, who has 16. Your friend A is clearly not as well-connected as your friend B.

Not unlike life.

Online popularity is the state-of-the-art measure of vanity. There are several thriving communities that trade on how linked-up you are. They include the Facebook (http://www.thefacebook.com/), an interactive yearbook that aims at the college crowd; Friendster (http://www.friendster.com/), a more general place, like a downtown bar, to meet friends, co-workers and strangers; and MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/), a do-it-yourself, all-around-service where you can blog, post pictures, etc.

Never mind that Yogi Berra once said that "anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked"; Mark Twain, after all, summed it up fine: "He liked to like people, therefore people liked him." In spite of that quiet but quaint voice in your head that says you shouldn't care how you stack up, of course you do.

"May it be online or offline, wherever, it's always about someone you know who knows someone else," says Chamath Palihapitiya, AOL's 29-year-old vice president and general manager for instant messaging, who speaks in a calm, unhurried voice that carries an air of someone who knows quite a bit about socializing. Because of the popularity of buddy lists, he adds, AOL last month decided to increase the number of people allowed to be on a user's buddy list from an impressive 200 to an astonishing 450. (Yahoo and MSN also offer instant messaging, although their versions are not as popular as AOL's in the United States, nor have they yet matched the new popularity fight feature. Their buddy lists are not taken into consideration by AimFight.)

"You can't affect your own score," says Palihapitiya. "The only way you can increase your score is to convince people to buddy-list you."

Around 2:30 in the morning Tuesday, a 50-year-old divorced computer trainer from Centreville is chatting on "Virginians over 40" at AOL.com. She wonders if she's more popular than her recent ex-boyfriend. "This is a nice little diversion," she says of Aim Fight. She's got "only 11 people" on her buddy list, she says, and she's "not sure" how many people her ex has on his.

Nonetheless, she types in her screen name and the screen name of her ex. "I won the fight, so it looks like he is not a lady's man, maybe?" crows Lydia, who repeatedly declines to give her last name out of embarrassment -- "What's a 50-year-old doing chatting in the middle of the night?"


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