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May 28, 1997

Newsweek, Wired, and The Economist have all recently sung the praises of Sixdegrees, a site that promises to be more than just another Internet white pages. Sixdegrees hails itself as a personalized networking service that knows you so well it can provide an instant web of friends, colleagues, and more.

The premise is alluring, and suggests one of the more oft-cited benefits of the Internet: global interconnectedness. Enter information about yourself, and the system intelligently matches your responses with those of the myriad of other members (200,000 at last count), allowing you to network in ways that until now would have required an Ivy League education, a cousin in the corner office, or both. Are there any squash-playing, Virgo television producers in Minneapolis? How about tall, blonde investment bankers who never miss Seinfeld? You get the idea.

But if that's the idea, the implementation is puzzling. Upon opting to become a member you are initially asked for just three things: your name, your e-mail address, and the name and address of at least one person the company can also solicit "on your behalf." And if you do enter a personal profile, the categories for occupations and interests are so broad as to be practically meaningless. Your office manager probably won't appreciate your printing out that list of everyone from the United States who works in "Business or Executive Services."

Searching Sixdegrees is more confusing still. At first all search results are blank. It turns out that the database will only "network" you with people whose names and e-mail addresses you yourself have supplied. What started out looking like a clever new way to explore the global village looks in the light of day suspiciously like the newest way to compile a massive Internet mailing list.

Then again it could work: "If I tell two friends, and they tell two friends...."

—Eric Westby

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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