Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Qualifying Facebook Friends

One of the concepts that social networks are redefining is that of friendship. Sites like Facebook and MySpace focus upon a "friends list" that allows users to interact with one another, control their privacy, or just show off. I think it's intriguing how this has changed the meaning of friendship, and also how it breaks down old walls and builds new ones.

For me, the most interesting aspect is how many social networking users have changed the meaning of "friend" into "acquaintance." While it is common for someone's friends list to achieve membership numbers in excess of 500, it is rare in a real social network that a person would actually consider 500 people their friends. I do not believe that there has been such a huge population of super networkers and that online social networking sites [from here on: Facebook] have suddenly exposed them. Rather, I believe that this demonstrates a situation where somewhat loose acquaintances are now added as "friends" on social networks.

Adding people to your social network seems to have replaced previous acts such as exchanging business cards, phone numbers, or emails. In many ways it is superior to the actions it replaces. If you meet someone at an event that was planned using Facebook then you can later add them from the attendees list. However, the boundaries are significantly different between adding someone to a list online and giving them your phone number.

Social contexts were dramatically different before the advent of Facebook. If I give you my phone number you probably feel some hesitation to use it if you do not know me well. If you never use it then we will never communicate. If, instead, I add you to my friends list on Facebook then we barely have to initiate communication. Unless I've quarantined you using privacy features then you'll likely see my every status update, and you can choose to browse through most of my interactions. In essence, I've conveniently opened my life to someone I may barely know.

The walls continue to break down from there, though. While you may have felt that hesitancy to use my phone number or email, it's less likely that you will hesitate to write something on my wall or reply to a status update. This is a major social dynamic of early contact that has changed dramatically. Not only can a short encounter cause me to open my life to you, but the social code dictating further contact has opened up such that it is far more likely that you will engage me.

That's not to say that new barriers haven't formed. It may be easier for communications to occur and that may enable lesser acquaintances to know more and say more, but these interactions are by far less intimate and less important. Significantly more interaction is required before any sort of trust is established, which is somewhat ironic considering the volume of information you've likely shared.

The other big wall is one that may or may not be real, but in a world where everyone is at your fingertips you may not have such an urge to meet up in person. I say this may not be real because I do not believe that online communication will create a generation of reclusive geeks who only talk online. Those geeks will be there, but they were there last generation as well, and the one before that and so on. More to the point, those who don't already fall into this category will not be reclassified due to social networking. Instead, I believe that some of the types of encounters we used to have will be less prevalent. After all, who needs to meet and catch up with friends if you never quite fell out of touch?

The cliché is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Absence is almost nonexistent in modern culture. We are always online, always available, always within reach. This can have many unwanted effects between friends. Those old friends from high school are now available, but they might not be the same person you remember. If you put your coworkers in your network you might suffer from too much information or too much exposure. These things serve to deteriorate relationships, not to grow them.

Is this the right way to handle social networking? I believe it is not. It certainly isn't right for me. In my next post I will discuss how I handle my Facebook friends. Beyond that, I hope to explore some patterns and actions that may help bring these things more in line with past societal expectations.

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