Wednesday August 27, 2008

Friend Me?

Hooray, stream of consciousness time.

One of the things that has constantly bothered me about social networks, and make me take pause as I interact with them, is the exclusive, unchangeable use of the word “friend” to describe the relationship you are about to enter into with others.

I actually have a queue of friend requests stagnating at each and every social networking site I belong to because I just don’t feel like I’m “friends” with these individuals. And I feel guilty, because even though I know that the web wants me to accept a very broad definition of what a friend is, I cannot help but resist. They’re acquaintances and cool people, but not really friends. Our interactions are amicable, but not at the “friend” level. Admittedly, that’s my own assessment. I feel bad for leaving people hanging, like I am rejecting them. If a different word was used in place of or in addition to “friend”, my networks might be more inclusive.

Seriously, am I the only one that has this inner dialogue every time a friend request comes in?

The best part is that I often break my own rules, sending friend requests to people I am only tangentially related to. I waffle. Consistency FAIL. (Sorry if I’m plunging you guys into the same quandary.)

Some networks scratch this itch for me. Linkedin works best for my mind; it’s more diplomatic, probably because it is slanted towards professional relationships. Instead of trying to classify the relationship within the act of connecting, Linkedin simply phrases it as “Add Joe Dotcom to your network”. Only after entering the linking process does Linkedin classify your relationship with that person (a very nice feature). And after that, everyone is a “contact”. I like the openness of that word.

Twitter is also Jared-friendly, simply referring to everyone as “followers”. A nice, unassuming relationship identifier which also happens to be pretty exclusive to the Twitter brand. Double win.

Flickr lets me assign a person as a Contact, Friend, or Family, each with increasing levels of access to my content. And, like Linkedin, people you add are generically referred to as “Contacts” thereafter. Very nice.

Maybe the aversion to the mandatory “friends” label in this context is generational? Maybe “friend” is the new “contact”? I mean, I get it. “Friend” is simple, open to interpretation and bubbling with the friendly web 2.0 goodness that all the kids are crazy about these days. Everyone’s jumping on the “friend” bandwagon.

Still, it just bugs me. It bugs me to have a queue of real people in a holding pattern because my social networks let me have friends or nothing at all. I guess my point is that “friend” seems like too personal a term for the kinds of relationships most of us have with each other online.

How do you decide to friend someone?


beth » 4771 days ago #

For me it depends what I’m using. Friend is contextual to the network. Facebook was strictly people I know, both professionally and personally until I started playing PackRat and friending people for the purpose of a more enjoyable game. MySpace is friends, acquaintances and bands only. LinkedIn is any person I think connecting with professionally might be worth my time. Twitter is any person who entertains me or on rare occasions, products or services I want updates on. And with Flickr, I am the least discriminating since they have good privacy controls for my photos.

Garrett Dimon » 4771 days ago #

Right there with ya. Now, will you go ahead and approve all of my pending friend requests for you?

patricia » 4771 days ago #

You certainly aren’t alone. I have the same issues. My social networks, because of my stringent definition of ‘friend’, tend to be small. While others seem to take pleasure in having an ever expanding network, I like keeping my groups small. This is not to say I haven’t made exceptions, but they’re rare. For the most part, anyone who Im connected to is someone I’ve had significant communication with, either in “real life” or online.

Plurk has been an experiment of sorts for me, friending people who I don’t really know. But even there, I tend to leave people as ‘fans’ until I get to know them a little better. It’s just, all these applications provide sooo much information. It’s hard to keep up and, honestly, if I don’t really know the person, why do I want to know what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner? ;D

Kyle » 4771 days ago #

My wife and I have a similar debate around the concept of “Favorite […]” — (fill in the blank with books, music, movies, etc.) Favorite, like friends, seems like such an absolute term. I plugged in a few of the artists in heavy rotation in my library when I signed up for facebook and now I get razzed about my “favorite” bands.

I think Flickr has the best solution.

James » 4770 days ago #

What do you think of FriendFeed’s new fake follow feature?

Matt Donovan » 4770 days ago #

On a related note, I just blocked a whole bunch of spammy twitter followers. It seems like my list of followers says something about me. I don’t insist on knowing a follower, but I’m much more discriminating than I used to be in terms of who I let follow me. At the same time, I enjoy letting my tweets be public. It might be kind of nice to be able to have public tweets, but still require people to get permission to be a follower.

Jared Christensen » 4770 days ago #

James – Huh, I had to look it up to figure out what you were referring to. After reading up on the feature, it strikes me as a great way to complicate your life, keep up appearances while actually being quite disingenuous and set yourself up to be branded as a flake.

Jacob Harvey » 4770 days ago #

Has anyone experimented with Facebook’s groups? It seems, with a little elbow grease, you could have a group of actual friends, or of acquaintances, and filter people’s interactions with you.

That of course wouldn’t help much with the actual nomenclature of “friends” used on the site.

Michael Montgomery » 4770 days ago #

In sum, “diction matters.”

“I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.”
Shakespeare, Richard II

Lea » 4770 days ago #

Oh, yeah, there’s definitely this conundrum. I also feel a little leery about adding people as a “friend” — this adds the extra level of thinking someone who is on their friend network actually physically and intimately knows this person, when in fact they may only know each other in passing. This has led me to assume EVERYONE is an acquaintance online, unless there was prior knowledge and evidence to prove otherwise.

I think, like Beth mentions, that we all have our different uses for different networks and that effectively draws lines. I don’t know if the aversion to use “friends” for just anyone is generational — it’s definitely subjective. I know some people “in real life” who casually throw around the word friend when they really mean “person I met only once.”

Natalie Jost » 4770 days ago #

Boy am I tied in the middle of this one! Personally I think some of these social apps are just too lazy to set up anything beyond one single “friend” label. :) I often look at requests coming in and go “who ARE you?!” then a little bit of “do I know you and I forgot, cause that happens, and if I don’t know you, do I need to, want to?” and then I feel guilty cause who the heck am I to be choosy about my friends, right? like I’m so special”. Then on the flip side I feel awfully presumptuous requesting someone be my “friend” when really all we are is acquaintances. I mean I like you, Jared, but I just don’t know if I can trust you to watch my kids like I could with a real friend. :) And you sure don’t know me well enough to vouch for me as a friend, so what now?

What if we could set our own labels for people? Facebook has started doing this where, as you accept someone as a friend, you can put them in a group of your choice. I have “high school friends”, “family”, “stalkers”, etc. so I can keep them straight. It would be awesome if the name would appear on their profile where we’re connected so other people could see who my stalkers are and then maybe they’d stop stalking me, because again, I’m just that special. Okay, I’ll shut up now.

Jared Christensen » 4769 days ago #

The more I think about it, I come back to the idea that “friend” is the new “user”. Both are not really appropriate labels for the people they describe, but it’s jargon that everyone understands (to an extent).

And no, Natalie, you can’t trust me with your kids. I’d get them so hopped up on Ben & Jerry’s that they wouldn’t sleep for weeks.

And with that gentle zing, we are now internet friends. :D

Mike Stickel » 4767 days ago #

Uh, yeah. To chime in a little late, I’m getting more and more strict about who I’m labeling as “friend” in the mass of social networks in the intarwebernets. Flickr/Facebook is probably the best model I’ve seen in regards to the relationships so far.

Where the only option is for someone to be a friend or nothing I have a significantly lower number of friends. Give me more options for relationships damnit! :)

Daniel » 4767 days ago #

Yeah this issue has been around a while. Back in 2004 my art/tech nonprofit Integration Research developed a piece of social software called “Smart Commons” (long since buried in the Internet graveyard). It had this concept of “personas”—you would have a single account on the system, but break up your information into these personas and then friend other people via a persona. That way you could keep your friends from your kid’s soccer team distinct from your friends from, you know, some much more nefarious activities. Our idea was that it better replicated how we interacted with people IRL—that is, selective information sharing largely based around context.

We did not succeed for a number of reasons and instead the world got MySpace.

I will have to check out these Facebook groups; this post was my first hearing about them. I have a slew of people from my high school that I can’t remember but probably should, but haven’t wanted to lump them together with all the people I actually know from the present.

…and I constantly wish for those Smart Commons personas…

Jared Christensen » 4765 days ago #

Daniel – That smart personas idea sounds fantastic. Even if the internet persisted in the use of the term “friend” (and it undoubtedly will, buzzword that it is) at least you could have some control over exactly what kind of ‘friend’ each person is — something that, as far as I know, only Flickr does (to some extent). And not goofy Groups like Facebook, but real user-defined sandboxing of content and relationships.

Christian Bradford » 4758 days ago #

I agree that it’s a matter of semantics and the emotional investment I might have in the labels the app/site/service has selected for us to use. I don’t like to add people that aren’t genuinely my friends. Similarly, there is a huge distinction between how often I rate music on and on Pandora. wants me to identify what songs I “love” and which ones I want to “ban”. Those choices are much more polarized than Pandora’s “thumbs up” and “thumbs down”, and therefore I find myself rating music more often on Pandora. I’m very selective regarding which songs I want to admit to “loving”, but I also very seldom want to ban something completely. I mostly just skip a lot.

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