Sunday, February 22, 2009

Social Networking Boundaries

Where the heck are the boundary lines, anyway?
The modern social networking site seems to be half popularity contest, half status update. Sprinkle in some idle chatter and time wasting and you have electricity. It seems that everyone has a different idea of how to use these sites and where they draw the line. At a bare minimum you're exposing parts of your life to the world, and greater parts to some loosely defined circle of friends and acquaintances.

What does friend mean to you?
I'm completely lost here. It seems as though I could consider anyone I've ever had any sort of contact with a friend. I've seen people do that on these sites. Even more abstracted are when your friends are really someone you don't know, you're just a fan.

I normally view friends as people that I have a legitimate connection to. That may mean that I only have conversations with them on a message board or that I've known them all my life. To qualify it has to be a situation where I actually communicate directly with the person at some point. Otherwise how could I ever consider that person a friend?

That's limiting, though. It omits those loose acquaintances whom I may want to become friends with. If I'm stingy with that label I will forever have a small circle of friends. Maybe they'll be closer to me but they will be far fewer. Perhaps I might miss out on a great friendship because of this. Could it be that I'm unwilling to open up?

On the other hand, I think it's odd to apply that label too loosely. If everyone is your friend, do your real friends know who they are? Do you know who they are? I may be missing something, but I don't think that even the best social networking software can enable someone to truly maintain hundreds of friendships.

Who do you want to truly connect with?
If you look at your friends list, how many people there would you talk to every day? How much of what you put in your profile is really for their consumption alone? What are the other people doing there and do you ever think of their presence?

I wonder about all of this because of the odd mix of events that occur on social networking sites. Many of them act as a sort of microblog with status updates serving as quick publications. They're used in odd ways, though. Often the microblog includes a chat spin off, or it's actually directed at a certain person or people. After all these years have we come back around to in-browser public chat with a slightly modified format?

Beyond that, I feel like a voyeur watching these status updates. Even though I've limited my friends list in ways, I still find myself questioning whether I would see these things in any other medium. I'm not sure if I want to know them, and I wonder if the person on the other end truly wanted me to know it or if they've just desensitized themselves to the lack of privacy.

My problem here is that I don't know whether these things were intended for me. I sometimes feel compelled to comment or act on information but don't because I wonder if I'm crossing some fuzzy border.

Social networking has a permissive dimension that is above one, but far shy of two. That is to say that it is like a fractal dimension. It is clearly not one dimensional, or else we could see the line and we would know when we cross it. It is not two dimensional either, because there is no clear line for where others stand and the other axis is not well defined. Instead, like the fractal, as you examine each line you will see never ending complexity comprised of the same questions. I suppose it boils down to this: Social networking boundaries are irrational.

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