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No Linkup for You! 

In the world of online community, one authoritative man can dictate your social life

Wednesday, Dec 12 2007

Firinn Taisdeal will tell you straight up: "It's tough being around me. No secret there." Yes, his relationships have been volatile: His siblings have stonewalled him for more than a decade, and his ex-girlfriend from high school has counted on a turbulent cycle of fiery battles and uneasy peace for the past 30 years. And then there's his friend who silently moans "Aww, shit" as he deletes an e-mail from Firinn too blistering to finish, wondering what he did this time to get in the doghouse, and how long it will take to be let out.

Yet in one of what Firinn calls those "beautiful ironies" of the universe, one that owes a lot to how the online galaxy enables anyone to reinvent himself as king of his own domain, he now acts as the monitor and final arbiter (a virtual Judge Judy, if you will) of the behavior of 23,000 adults worldwide – nearly 7,000 of them here in the Bay Area. They've signed up for his social networking Web site, Linkup Central, and have become part of his quest to enforce accountability in a random world of flakes.

So on a recent night over sushi in a restaurant across from San Francisco City Hall, the man with a record of turbulent relationships discussed how to make people behave better with four Linkup devotees. (He had been hoping for more guests, but one attendee speculated that people are "intimidated by Firinn.")

One woman questioned what she should have done when a cyclist with a major attitude ruined a ride she organized. Give her two choices, Firinn advised: Shape up or leave. The same woman lamented that people also won't stop jabbering on her hikes. Name it a "silent hike of appreciation," he says — that'll weed out the blabbermouths.

Firinn suggests they create a guide on how to be a good guest. "This will trigger some discussion ..."

"And the accusations of paternalism," one man interjects. "Again."

"Oh, I know!" Firinn says. "And the same age-old accusations of paternalism. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Boy, that stuff rolls off my back now."

Firinn has gotten used to the criticism because it turns out that labeling people's behavior unacceptable in the Wild West of Web-initiated socializing makes you a lot of enemies. Call him "paternalistic," call him Firinn der Führer — one of the more inventive titles those he's deemed unworthy have come up with — but the accusations certainly aren't going to halt his social experiment.

Linkup Central is a variation on sites such as Meetup, Urban Diversion, and MEETin that focus on luring people away from the glowing seduction of their computer screens to actually meet in the flesh. Any Linkup member can create an event — be it a bonfire on Ocean Beach, dinner and a movie, or a Beatles sing-along at Fort Mason. And any member can sign up: the divorcée whose social circle dissolved along with her marriage, the work-from-home consultant who otherwise would never leave, the nurse sick of camping with only her dog.

Yet on the other social sites, people can RSVP and attend or not attend with no problem. But Firinn promotes a different behavior in an overcommitted era in which flaking is only a text message away.

He demands you actually show up.

It's called accountability, and Firinn says society is plagued by the lack of it. Memoirists fabricate stories. Politicians invent reasons for war. Any Joe Schmoe can become Don Juan in a personal ad. And Firinn says the Internet has only sped the decline of integrity as people assume fake screen names and bash others at will. (Or defend their bosses in secret, like Mayor Gavin Newsom's ex-spokesman Peter Ragone.)

So Firinn has dubbed himself a social software entrepreneur. He has programmed Linkup to punish flaky behavior like last-minute cancellations, no-shows, and lame excuses. Event hosts report the offending behavior, and transgressions plummet members' ratings from a top score of 100 down toward zero, making it harder to sign up for future events, since hosts set minimum ratings guests must have in order to RSVP.

Many members rave that the accountability system pushes Linkup a step above social sites many times its size that are popular in this wired city. Hosts can better plan for more intimate events when they know everyone will attend. Flakes either shape up or become frustrated and leave, which helps maintain a high level of commitment among members.

"I don't see how it could be much better," member Jim Gross says. "You never have a problem with people."

The site is growing at the slow yet steady rate Firinn desires in order to maintain the membership quality. He has expanded to include 23 U.S. cities and seven more worldwide, yet none are nearly as active as the San Francisco chapter, with some 175 events a month.

But even as members praise, or at least grudgingly accept, the accountability system as the engine of Linkup's momentum, many question the arguably extreme tactics of the man at the helm.

The cold math of the accountability system is only a part of the way behavior is monitored (although the math, too, is subject to whether hosts rat on flaky behavior). Linkup customer service also kicks off the people whom it deems do "not fit" into Linkup culture, as Firinn puts it. The site's terms of service allude to how subjective a call that can be: "Linkup Central may, with or without cause, immediately terminate your ... account ... without prior notice." Roughly 1,200 people have been booted since the site's creation in 2003 — not counting the one in four applicants whose profiles are rejected in the first place — with seldom a chance to appeal.

Although the customer service team consists of three people, most conflict mediation and serious judgment calls are handled by Firinn. And when you're dealing with someone described as everything from "intense" to a "mad genius" to a "control freak" — albeit a "control freak" who writes "Long live healthy dissent in America!" in an event description — even some of his staunchest supporters who laud him as a visionary and a hero fear that irking him means they'd be dumped through the trapdoor into cyberspace, a significant portion of their social lives vanishing with them.

"It's like being disappeared in Stalinist Russia," says Tom Merle, who was deleted last year, along with e-mail contact with all the folks he'd met. "Like you never existed."

With the paranoid way members talk about Firinn, you'd think they were gossiping about the White Witch in Narnia. Before a recent Linkup hike at Baker Beach, one member said, "If you get on his bad side — " and another sliced a finger across his throat only half in jest.

Members trade Firinn tales at just about every event, which balloon into urban myths — egged on by the fact that most have never met him and piece together the man behind the cybercurtain from such stories and his idiosyncratic event descriptions. One particularly amusing one reads: "Please don't hassle me about small details. That just makes me hate you. Please don't ask me dumb questions like, 'So when did you start Linkup?' That would make me hate you too, probably even more."

There are firsthand tales: One guy submitted an event where he included "Tell jokes about Firinn" as one of the activities, only for that portion to be deleted by customer service before being posted. There was the time Firinn wouldn't talk to anyone at a karaoke event, and grew flustered when people diverted from the conversation topic he'd set at a dinner. One of the more entertaining tidbits to members — who are required to use their real first names in their profiles — is that Firinn and the other customer service employees write e-mails under aliases such as "George Chen." Members report one woman writing back "Dear 'George Chen,'" questioning the alter ego with sassy quotation marks, and, because of that and other behavior perceived as "obnoxious," lost her customer service privileges. Firinn says he created the aliases because he wanted a buffer from people "misusing every little thing I did or said" and to provide consistency no matter which employee was writing the letter.

Then there are the conspiracy theories: Firinn reads all the e-mails members send through the site. (Only if you use a word programmed to alert him, he says.) He sends spies to events to make sure hosts are reporting flakes. (Not true, Firinn says, but one customer service employee is a Linkup member and doesn't tell others because she fears it would interfere with people socializing with her. The potential hypocrisy of not disclosing this on a site dedicated to accountability is a discussion for another day.)

Firinn has his defenders — "He doesn't suffer fools, period; I admire him for it, frankly," says member John Donaldson — and he says anyone who doesn't like his system can join one of the Web's multitude of other socializing groups. But members want to stay at Linkup for its high-quality events, so the fear of being ousted sets in. "Not one event goes by without stories of the tyrannical control of Firinn," says another member unwilling to give his name as he walks along the coast on the recent hike. "For a guy who's not that socially adept to be running an organization like this ..." He falls silent.

Firinn scans the screen of his iMac in his immaculate apartment nestled in a generic Walnut Creek complex, where he moved seven years ago from San Francisco. He jokingly refers to the modest place as the "Worldwide Linkup Headquarters" — somewhat disappointing, really, compared to the images dancing in members' heads of Oz's Emerald Castle. Many have done the mental math, multiplying the 23,000 worldwide profiles by the $4.95 monthly membership fee, and concluded that by raking in $1.3 million a year, he must live in a suburban mansion. But the reality is that only Bay Area members with active accounts pay the fees, and so currently the site only generates approximately $65,000 before taxes to pay all three employees' salaries plus overhead.

Though Firinn projects Linkup will generate more than $250,000 in a couple of years, money is not his primary concern. Bringing people together for quality interaction comes first, and, unfortunately, that mission requires relentless pruning of those who "don't get it."

Firinn is an animated guy who oozes good intentions and a true believer's conviction with every inch of his 5-foot-9 frame balanced in geriatric orthopedic shoes. His regal posture gives away years of ballet training — one of the many subjects he says he dove into before UC Berkeley forced him to choose a major and graduate after seven years of undergraduate study. Now 51, he reads for four hours a day, and admits he cannot bear small talk. His events err on the cerebral side: discussing clichés in culture, reflecting on quotations, sharing books. His thick hair wicks up on end like a gray torch. Combined with stud earrings and his eerily intense aquamarine eyes, you can see him fitting right in at a hobbit casting call for Lord of the Rings.

Firinn opens the computer file of those banished since Linkup's debut four years ago. He jokes that the number has decreased as "the low-hanging rotting fruit" are weeded out. A sentence-long explanation is tagged to each profile along with the user's e-mail, phone number, and IP address. Of the 3,000 who have left, nearly 60 percent delete themselves. The rest, well, ahem:

"This is borderline, but this is a narcissistic profile," Firinn says, intoning a breathy voice to read, "'I am and always will be an artist at heart.'" He asks, "Are you interested in sports? In music? We didn't ask for a mini biography, you know.

"Oh, here's a guy — two no-show flake factors, his rating was down to 46 percent, and then he had a picture of himself from the back," he continues. "I mean, that's an antisocial pattern right there! You're not showing up, and then you've got a picture of the back of your head?"

Firinn pauses and stares at you, like, don't you see a problem with this?

"Maybe he's trying to be artistic?" you offer.

"Maaaaybe," Firinn says. "Well, maybe he just doesn't fit."

End of discussion, and off go others without discussion, either: the guy who listed his name as "Chrisanova" and his job as "foofy evil-doer." (No fake profiles.) A guy selling boxes. (Spam is not allowed.) The entire women's field hockey group that was too cliquish. The guy who used "kissmyass" in his password. (Firinn has programmed his software to alert him every time people write an obscenity or a competing Web social group's name.) The guy who listed in his interests, "I don't like [to] stay at home. sex, and alcohol, and, sex, again." ("Forget it!" Firinn says: Cruising is not allowed.) The guy who was e-mailing members to look for a harpsichordist for his chamber orchestra. (Firinn says if you want to message strangers, go to MySpace.)

Firinn seems amused to revisit the old troublemakers, yet he says playing policeman is the most depressing part of his job: "You're just reminded of all the shitty little things people do," he says. "For me, the programming is not only easy, but a total joy. But people can be so wonderful and people can be such a pain in the ass."

To begin to understand Firinn Taisdeal, to understand why he wants to be "the good parent I never had" for a group of people who agree to be courteous to one another, you have to go way back and way across the country to Westport, Connecticut, when Firinn was not even Firinn yet, but James Henry Cunniff II.

Firinn holds back details, but life in the Cunniff household was apparently volatile. Recovering-alcoholic mother, codependent father, and lies-that-keep-the-family-safe-from-the-truth bad. All were brutal to each other with impunity, he says. Firinn adds he was the family's black sheep, forcing conversations on the subjects no one would talk about.

He liked to provoke at school, too. Wearing a lab coat one day, headphones plugged into nothing the next, he was the kid who wrote on his AP English final that the teacher should find a less clichéd essay topic. He eschewed cliques, often bringing together greasers and jocks at the same party to see how they'd mix. One friend, Jim Simpkins, says Firinn would be the ultimate flake one day, storming away for no apparent reason, but then backing him up in a showdown with a bully the next.

"If you became his friend you were signing up for some turbulence," says Simpkins, now a stay-at-home dad in Seattle. "He has an idea of what he wants a person to be like, and if you don't fit that, he slides you to his shit list, which is basically where I am right now."

Firinn was kicked out of the house the summer after high school, by which time he says he'd honed a healthy suspicion of groups. They just lie and cover up for each other, he decided. After moving to Berkeley for college, he eventually became estranged from his family.

In 1996, he opened an Irish dictionary in the San Francisco Public Library. He'd wanted a name that described what he valued and strove for, and he figured he felt more Irish than anything else. Two words struck him: "Firinn," pronounced "Fear-in." It meant "truth" and, pronounced differently, meant "young girl" — a reminder of his older sister who committed suicide during his senior year of high school, and whom he saw as a victim of the toxic lack of truth in the house. "Taisdeal," pronounced "Tash-duhl," meant "seeker." He legally changed his name within weeks.

Having taught himself computer programming, Firinn worked in Silicon Valley during the tech boom. But after growing disgusted with co-workers interested only in the value of their stock options, he says he left three months short of collecting some $600,000 himself, torching bridges behind him with a parting note that went something like: I'm going to go do something with actual integrity. If you have integrity, you'll leave, too.

Firinn went on to a job designing computer games. The potential of technology fascinated him, but how was he contributing to the world by creating ways for people to waste their time? Thrown into what he describes as a personal and professional crisis, he quit, and soon learned firsthand how the Internet can bring out the worst in people. He hit up the business networking site, but instead of making connections, he busted onto message boards for conservative Republicans and flamed people he'd never meet for four hours a day.

At the same time, he saw how technology could bring out personal initiative while he volunteered for the Howard Dean presidential campaign, which allowed volunteers to organize campaign events online. Could that work in the social arena?

Firinn would soon see. His girlfriend urged him to attend a lunch club, but he was so annoyed by the disorganization and onerous sign-up process of one on Craigslist that he created his own, the Bay Area Lunch Club, in 2003. After about six months, members of the club started to host their own events beyond midday meals.

But the club's momentum hit an obstacle. One host told Firinn how embarrassed she'd been when only three people showed up for a reservation for 12 at Nordstrom. Firinn says people flaking had never particularly bothered him — a friend who once forgot to take him to the airport begs to differ — but the woman's complaint hit a nerve.

"She was never going to try again," Firinn says, going into tears as he recounts the story. "She had given up. ... She was trying to fight back her tears." (The woman, Karla Dayton of Alameda, says she's honored he took her seriously, but politely adds that she wasn't that upset: "Maybe he's the emotional one.")

Firinn thought about the lessons gleaned from Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling books, The Tipping Point and Blink. People respond to cues that indicate the permitted behavior in any environment. Firinn had already programmed his site to urge good behavior; it corrected sloppy online grammar, changing "tonite" to "tonight" and shrinking multiple exclamation points to one. Swearing, spamming, and cruising were regulated.

In addition, Firinn learned from Gladwell's books that you can judge a lot about a person's character from the smallest of indicators. If those who jump subway turnstiles are more likely to have a criminal history, Firinn figured something as complex as a person's integrity could be judged by something as simple as whether they could keep a commitment.

Enter the accountability system.

As Firinn kicked off the first batches of flakes, mutiny broke out. The condemned logged onto Craigslist and spewed vitriol against him. At first, Firinn worried he had overreached. But as the so-called flakes and other transgressors were banished, Linkup hosts found their efforts wouldn't be squandered. Word got out, and Linkup took off. A patent for the accountability system is pending.

"To me, it is a phoenix type of story ... or taking what's broken in his past and making something good out of it," Simpkins says. "He had a difficult time making relationships, keeping relationships ... and now he's in the business of providing relationships."

Firinn applies the idea that small instances demonstrate a person's character in other ways, and he's always looking for clues, what he calls "social information." One such method is how members respond to "push back." Flipping the customer-is-always-right mantra, Linkup customer service often responds by challenging members. Hosting privileges are axed for hosts about whom guests have complained, to see whether they'll accept the punishment or go ape. Customer service will also sternly challenge people's interpretations of a situation if they write in with problems. Firinn notices the guilty tend to go silent, and the reasonable won't continue fighting. Many of these interactions are noted in the members' administrative files.

"If they blow up at us, it's all over," Firinn says. "I'm subtly trying to get the word out to the group that it's not good to be unreasonable with customer service."

Many claim customer service itself is the unreasonable one, going for the jugular when a slap on the wrist would do. One e-mail kicked out a woman for using a fake profession, adding a stinger at the end: "We also had to deal previously with a serious complaint about your being so drunk at your own event that you could not get home by yourself." (To avoid conflict, people are no longer told that they have been kicked out. The banished simply discover they can no longer log in.)

Many members applaud Firinn for weeding out the troublemakers. Michelle Heathman of Oakland said she wrote that a man had joined Linkup whom she considered a stalker. Firinn called her back in minutes and blocked the man from the system: "Firinn went from being this scary Oz to 'Michelle, what do we do to help you?'" she recalls. She is now a staunch Firinn defender.

Firinn says his position as, he jokes, "hopefully, the benevolent dictator" brings forth authority issues. One man approached him to ask, "What's next, Captain?" and other members try to suck up to him at events. He says his system is provoking people as he always has — now, he hopes, in a positive way.

Perhaps no case better demonstrates Firinn Taisdeal's zeal in hunting down those he sees as a threat to Linkup than the ex-member he threatened with a restraining order for crashing events: "This one I have no trouble remembering: Elll-vin Martinez," Firinn says, holding on to the "l" for effect.

Sipping on a Bora Bora Horror at the Tonga Room at a recent MEETin event, the jolly marked man — a Financial District accountant, of all things — explains his stealth operation. It all started after Martinez was kicked out of Linkup for hosting issues (Firinn's version) or let his subscription expire (Martinez' claim). But he had made plenty of friends, and continued to attend several events a week for a year, sometimes on an invitation from the host or a guest, sometimes crashing. The high jinks caught up with Martinez when he squatted at an expat European event, told the miffed host about his serial crashing, and declared, "Oh, we're all immigrants from Europe."

Firinn was on his tail. He called Martinez at work and e-mailed his boss (also a Linkup member) saying that he intended to pursue legal action against Martinez and the person providing access to his or her account. Martinez had created a phony account, and later even had a friend join so he could continue to check events. His boss was soon kicked out, too.

Firinn posted a wanted-dead-or-alive-type notice on the Linkup homepage, including Martinez' physical stats. "I was worried it was going to make me a bad person in other people's eyes," Martinez says. "But it was kind of the opposite. I got kind of famous."

Firinn grew flustered. "I was doing my best to intimidate that guy, and it didn't work," he says. "He's got some seriously heavy-duty psychological armor."

Martinez says he just likes happy hour.

Another Linkup member, Chuck Jones, posted a picture on his profile in which Martinez appeared. Firinn booted Jones out, writing that he had "clear evidence that you had conspired with Mr. Elvin Martinez to provide access to your account," but all would be forgiven if he contributed evidence against Martinez for a possible restraining order. Chuck wrote back, "Quite frankly, many people consider him a bit of [a] hero."

Firinn, using the alias Roberta Newton, shot back an e-mail: "Thank you very much for letting us know that you find repeated acts of theft and fraud ... somehow admirable or heroic. It's always good to know what another person's values are, and now we know yours."

Firinn never was able to find Martinez' address to serve him with the hypothetical restraining order, despite paying for an Internet search.

Martinez continues his frenetic socializing on other sites, even hosting a salsa dancing group for As for Linkup events, he says he's mostly lost interest as many of his friends were booted off, yet he made a crashing comeback in November at a toy drive event at the Gordon Biersch brewery in San Francisco. (He didn't bring a toy.) He and Jones attempted to start a Yahoo group for Linkup exiles, but it flopped.

"They kind of flaked out on us," Jones says, and smirks.

This summer, a complaint arrived to customer service: Cee England, a regular host from San Mateo County, had e-mailed three guests who flaked on a bike ride, saying, "You're all losers." After being bawled out by customer service, she deleted herself.

The sprightly woman had known all the riders she'd written to, and meant the "loser" remark the way you'd jab your brothers in the ribs, as one complained that he wasn't in shape for the route, and another didn't want to pay. But England regretted leaving in an outrage, and Firinn heard she wanted back in.

Firinn has been contemplating the possibility of forgiveness on Linkup. An attendee at his lecture at the Commonwealth Club last year challenged him: "If your whole purpose of this is trying to change people's interactions and how they deal with each other, I don't see the compassion." But Firinn had been unsure: If given the chance, could people change?

After decades of abrasive relations with people, Firinn says he's dedicated himself to becoming less rigid and more accepting, and friends say they note the difference. After hearing that his mother had died a few years ago, Firinn paid for an Internet search to find his father's California address. Firinn met with him three years ago this month, having prepped for a month to avoid losing his temper. A six-day road trip the two took in June drew apologies from both sides, and Firinn is writing a book titled How to Change Your Mind.

Before, on Linkup, "I do think we erred too far on the side of summary judgment," Firinn admits. "If I can redeem a relationship that for three years was absolutely painful, what implication does that have for Linkup?"

So two months ago a potential policy emerged that will remain once Firinn recedes to a supervisory role to finish his book and embark on a new project providing solar ovens to women in developing countries: Certain members may be allowed back if they promise to change.

Firinn sent word that England could sign up again. She e-mailed a promise to keep all her correspondence professional in the future, and he wrote back, "I hope we all learned something from this little episode."

Something that a schoolteacher would say while patting a naughty student on the head? Yep. Did customer service also kick off some 30 members in the time it allowed a dozen to rejoin? You better believe it. Indeed, Firinn doesn't think the new policy will greatly affect the final numbers. But for the moment, at least, peace was restored in the Linkup kingdom.

"That's the new Firinn," he says. Redemption "is always a possibility."

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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