IT SOUNDS LIKE the perfect antidote to modern society, in which human relationships are increasingly loose and fragile. Here, you have friends who love you dearly and shower you with compliments day by day. You will never be lonely, because within just one week, you could be connected to more than 50,000 potential 'friends' or 'friendsters'. Suddenly, life is beautiful. Welcome to the world of friendster.com, one of the latest online social-networking services that helps people find dates and new friends through an enormous interconnected database. If you haven't heard of it, you probably don't have enough friends - by friendster standards that is. Since its launch in the United States in March, friendster.com has quickly become a social phenomenon with 1.7 million users. Now, the site has taken off in Hong Kong, and has attracted some famous local names, including fashion designer Barney Cheng and Canto-pop stars Coco Lee and Tricia Chen Kin-fei. 'It kept me up the first few weeks as I was totally hooked on reading others' testimonials of my friends and writing testimonials for them,' says Cheng, who has posted a dashing bare-chested photo of himself and now has 144 'friends'. Californian software engineer Jonathan Abrams says he launched the site to get away from the 'creepy and anonymous' online-dating tools. Friendster.com owes its popularity to a simple but effective formula. Unlike traditional online-dating services that disseminate people's profiles to anyone who is interested, the site allows people to network with others within a closed system. You sign up, usually at the invitation of someone you know, and will automatically be linked to that person's 'friendsters'. You post a picture of yourself, list your interests and expand your network by inviting your friends who will then invite other friends, and so on. There is a testimonial section for your friends to comment about you and they will most likely trumpet your virtues - 'sexy', 'gorgeous', 'great' being some of the most common descriptions. Soon you will be connected to an ocean of people through one friend. Its expansion of about 20 per cent of users per week since its launch suggests it's not just another website for lonely people to meet and socialise. Chen says she was virtually addicted to the site. 'I spent about three hours every day on it when I started,' she says. 'That was a lot, especially given my busy schedule. It was fun looking at their [her friendsters'] photos because a lot of people's personality come out in pictures.' One 28-year-old trader, who only identifies himself as Spencer, says: 'It can be quite addictive in that you click on other people's pages and you can learn about their lives. It's like reading a novel.' Or maybe an autobiography. Many Friendster.com aficionados are keen to talk about themselves on their pages, detailing their personality, hobbies, favourite books and films. Writer Sean Nelson, of American website stranger.com, recently wrote that friendster.com provided 'a harmless network fuelled by the basic human desires of exhibitionism, voyeurism and procrastination'. But it is also about the basic human desire to be popular. Cheng says an informal competition was recently held among his network of friendsters to see who had the most 'friends'. 'It was just a 'how many have you got? Well, I got this many . . .' sort of competition,' he says. 'One girl just ended up inviting everyone on her e-mail list to join. One friend was reprimanded for not having any testimonials on her page. And another was told that six friendsters just wouldn't do. It's very competitive and in a voyeuristic way - to 'meet' strangers and expose your 'friends' to strangers' scrutiny. I lost the competition, obviously.' It's also about curiosity, and perhaps loneliness. One female user, who declines to be named, says: 'I have a friend who spends hours reading other people's testimonials. I think he's just nosey. He asks everybody to become his friends on the site because he doesn't have many. And he keeps asking me to write him a testimonial and say good things about him.' But Cheng looks at the site in a positive light. 'I don't think it is so much a showing-off thing as it is more of a feel-good site in which people say nice things about each other, which isn't something we do on a daily basis if we do it at all. It's just something to brighten someone else's day.' It's perhaps hardly surprising that the Hong Kong-born, San Francisco-raised Lee has a whopping 800 'friends', and perhaps less surprising that she's also taken the opportunity for self-promotion. ('My next album should be released early next year. You can also check out my new song . . .') The site has drawn enough attention to have won the ultimate accolade of being mocked by another website. Fiendster.com is posted with crude notices such as ' why don't you just go out and smell the roses? You have no friends nor will you get any through our service! You are just another loser about to get out your credit card to pay for putting the gory details of your life online. Get out, find real friends.' friendster.com appears to miss the irony that its creators are also holed up in cyberspace rather than the outside world. But do people need so many friends? Accountant Vincent Choi, who has 38 friends on friendster.com, says he has made some new contacts through the site but has not met them. 'I don't even have enough time to meet my close friends, so how can I have the time for the new contacts?' he says. 'I don't think the friendship would be deep if you have hundreds of friends.' But many friendsters say the pleasure doesn't lie in finding new friends, but keeping in touch with old ones. Cheng says: 'I think it's a good way to keep in touch with friends whom I normally would not have kept in touch with. I even got to know my second cousins better through this site.' Abrams, however, insists there's a deeper meaning to his site. 'In today's society, as people move around more, work longer hours, get married later, and can rely less on traditional social institutions to create their social community, there is a need for new ways to meet people and connect . . . So I think it can bring people together.'