Of all the sites one can get entangled with on the internet, “a place for friends,” as networking haven MySpace.com dubs itself, seems harmless enough on the surface. You stop by, post a picture and type in your favorite bands and/or movies to create a profile, and maybe send a “friend request” or two to people you know.

But that’s just the beginning. There’s a reason Fox News owner and media mogul Rupert Murdoch recently paid $580 million for the site — like the most potent drugs (and reality TV shows), what starts off as a mere time-passing amusement can easily mutate into an addiction.

The upside and downside of MySpace is its close resemblance to a never-ending high school yearbook. Once a user has a profile, she can start accumulating “friends” and trade comments and messages with them, set herself up to have her pictures rated, join groups, post bulletins … basically, MySpace creator Tom Anderson has taken almost all of the facets of in-person social networking and interaction as they’ve been for ages and made them digital.

So you’ve set up the profile and started the friend ball rolling (make sure to check your requests to see who’s accepted and who’s denied your connection) — what’s the next step?

Well, if you’re like millions of other MySpace users, you grab the closest digital camera and, if you’re a girl, a low-cut (preferably lacy) top, and take lots of pictures of yourself with a pout and come-hither/bedroom eyes. The flashier boys tend to go for the shirtless, flexed muscles look or, on the other end of the spectrum, the drunk party boy picture (also usually shirtless, but with far fewer muscles). Bonus points for having some kind of blur or flash effect on the finished product. You wouldn’t believe the time people spend taking these perfectly emo self-portraits.

The next step in MySpace addiction is the discovery of the discreet voyeurism it affords. Let’s say you’re trolling through profiles, trying to find some hotties to befriend, and you stumble upon an ex or some hot boy you recently met out in the “real world” (what’s that?). Who’s leaving them comments? Who’s in their “Top 8” (a feature that lets users choose the eight people whose pictures appear on their profile)? When was the last time they logged in? How many “friends” do they have? Are they cool? Do they have some stupid song that plays automatically when you look at their profile?

And perhaps most tellingly, what are they writing in their blog? Yes, that’s right, as if the name alone didn’t indicate the level of self-involvement enough, there are blogs on MySpace. The funny thing is that most people don’t seem to realize they’re writing for an audience of, potentially, millions. The bad day at work and subsequent bender you document could be read by your boss, your coworkers, even (*gasp*) your mom.

Then it’s time to take a stroll down memory lane. Just head to the “schools” section and type in your high school or college and graduation year, then see just how many of the weirdos in your class ended up pregnant at 19 … or finally came out of the closet.

Once you’ve rounded up a good number of friends, the dark side of MySpace becomes apparent. There are three features on the site that let people keep tabs on anyone else who happens to be a member: 1) the blinking “Online Now!” that appears underneath the picture of those who are also currently satisfying their MySpace jones, 2) the “Last login,” which shows the date of any user’s last visit to the site, and 3) when you send someone a MySpace message, you can check the status of it: “sent,” “read,” “replied,” or the dreaded “deleted.”

So you’ve checked your messages and comments, your friend requests, your friends’ blogs, and looked to see who’s put up new pictures. Now it’s time to peruse the bulletin board to see what’s going on later that night or over the weekend. Then maybe find a potential date for said weekend activities, listen to some random band from Bumfuck, Idaho that has taken the time to put some mp3s on their page, play some Diamond Mine on MySpace games, or search for your best friend from third grade. The possibilities are endless … unfortunately, your boss’ patience might not be.

Listings Editor Sara Miller visits MySpace only during her lunch break and after hours.

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