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

Wednesday, Dec 12 2007
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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 www.ryze.com, 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.")

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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