'Kristen's' Online Whirlwind

Stationed in Afghanistan, Jordan Parks is a half a world away from New York City. But that has not stopped him from hearing about—or making his mark on—Gov. Spitzer's sex scandal. "Being in Afghanistan, all we do is watch the news, and that was all that they were talking about," says Parks, a satellite communications operator in the 82nd Airborne Division who has been stationed there since January 2007. When the identity of "Kristen" was revealed in the press, he became even more consumed by the coverage. So he logged on to Facebook—Park says it's his "lifeline to back home," and he checks his account daily—and created a group called "I don't care WHO or WHAT she did, Ashley Alexandra Dupre is effin gorgeous!!" He invited a few of his buddies in Afghanistan to join; two of them signed up. "I thought it would just be this little inside joke with my friends," says Parks, but when he checked his account the next morning, the "inside joke" had attracted more than 100 members, none of whom Parks knew. By Friday morning the membership had grown to nearly 200. "It's just wild to see how much of a news source MySpace and Facebook have become," says Parks.

As the Spitzer sex scandal has unfolded over the past week, so too has the instantaneous Internet reaction, with Spitzer paraphernalia and Facebook groups trailing New York Times updates by mere minutes. "We've moved beyond a 24-hour news cycle and into a 360-degree environment where we are completely encompassed by news," says Jessica Clark, director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media. "It's taken on a real life of its own now that we have the tools, like social networks and online production, very well established and solid." That means that everyone becomes an insta-critic, whether through an item of clothing bearing the witty slogan "I was Client 8 and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" or a blog impersonating Ashley Alexandra Dupre.

Three days into the Spitzer story, CafePress.com had an astonishing array of 260 different scandal-themed T-shirts for sale. Fifteen Facebook groups—and counting—had spring up in Dupre's honor. And the bidding was underway for the Client9.com domain (currently for sale here). Montana Miller, an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University who researches social networking, says that the level of Internet chatter makes a major news event impossible to avoid. Anyone with an online social life gets drawn into the fold. "In all these different ways we're so constantly connected, through Facebook, through e-mail," Miller says. "Every little detail gets passed along at warp speed."

Dupre has been the recipient of much of the attention. The New York Times thrust her into the social network spotlight by identifying her as "Kristen" and linking to her MySpace account, which had received more than 7 million visits as of early Friday afternoon. The single she had posted on MySpace, "What We Want," was playing on New York's pop radio station, Z100, less than 24 hours after her identity broke. Miller was a bit surprised that the Times linked to a MySpace account; access to that information changes how readers interpret the news. "One advantage is that it gives us more perspectives," says Miller, adding that if Monica Lewinsky had had a MySpace account "she might have been a more sympathetic character." But at the same time, cross-linking between news sites and social networks blurs the line separating their functions. "Now that we're getting a lot of information through social networking sites and through blogs and sites that don't have the same rigor as the New York Times, I really worry we have a generation that doesn't know how to distinguish between these news sources," she says. "It might not even occur that that is necessary to them."

Over on Facebook, Dupre has been both lauded and loathed. Groups in her name range from congratulatory ("Fans of the Other Mrs. Eliot Spitzer") to contemptuous ("The Ashley Alexandra Dupre Disdain Club"); collectively, they have a few thousand members. Amir Nadjmabadi, a fifth-year student at Virginia Tech, started the largest group, "Ashley Alexandra Dupre for President '08." Nadjmabadi is a finance major and says that in his department there was a lot of celebrating of Spitzer's demise. That spurred his creation of the Facebook group Wednesday night around 10 p.m. Within 30 seconds the group had two additional members. "There was one guy from Australia, another guy from Venezuela," he says. "I was kind of dumbfounded." By Friday morning membership had grown to 356.

But before Dupre settles into her moment of fame, a note of caution: Internet glory of this variety tends to fade just as rapidly as it arises. "These things usually don't have staying power. They will peter out," says Miller. There are already signs of dwindling interest in Dupre's musical career: her single will likely be pulled from Z100's rotation late today, due to negative listener response, according to a station spokeswoman.

But for the time being her Facebook fans are standing by her. Would Nadjmabadi actually want Dupre in the White House? He mulls the thought for a second. "Honestly, from a realistic perspective, if she actually became president—which won't happen in a million years—I would assume she would have a bunch of smart aides around her," he says. "I think she might be more a free-thinker than any of the candidates we have now."