Facebook, friends, and social networking sites

I think I joined the original Six Degrees site, way back when it first launched, just 'cause I was curious about the six-degrees-of-separation idea. Even then, I remember friends of mine refusing to sign up because they didn't want to formally state who their friends were to a website. (Some were bothered by the privacy issues, some by putting labels and definitions on interpersonal relationships.)


I didn't sign up for the revamped Six Degrees when it came back, 'cause (iIrc, which I may not) it was a commercial site rather than a social experiment. So I think my next try at social-networking sites was some years later, when Susan convinced me to join Friendster.

And Friendster was kinda fun for a brief while, but if you weren't looking for dates there (and I wasn't particularly), it seemed to me there wasn't much to do. Except extravagantly praise your friends, which is fun but could only hold my attention for so long.


I signed up for LiveJournal at some point, which brought with it a new batch of friendship angst. The creators of LJ decided to refer to the list of blogs you were tracking as your "friends" list (and conflated it with the list of people who you wanted to be able to read your private entries)--which I'm sure increased LJ's popularity, 'cause being told that you're someone's friend is a nice feeling. But if they'd called it a "reading list" or "subscription list" or something, I'd have been a lot more comfortable with it. Because it's ridiculous to say that the people whose journals I read are necessarily my "friends," or to say that everyone who I like must be on my reading list. (Anyway, the volume of my reading list got so high a while back that I stopped reading it regularly. Some day I still intend to write about that.)

The terminology confusion on LJ leads to people asking other people "Is it okay if I friend you?" Where "friend you" just means "put you on the list of journals I read regularly." This is not something that it would ever occur to anyone to ask were it not for the mislabeling of it as being "friends." As one of our authors puts it on their LJ profile page, the friends list is "a reading list, not a high school clique"--but given the term "friends," it's hard to remember that sometimes.

Orkut and binary friendship

I also signed up for Orkut at some point, I think 'cause I was hoping it would be indirectly helpful in finding dates for a then-single friend. It was, of course, gratifying to have people indicate--in writing! for everyone to see!--that they were my friend. Yay! I have friends! But it quickly became clear (as it had before with Friendster) that people who I barely knew were going to tell the system that they were my friends, hoping for me to confirm the connection. And, y'know, it seems rude to tell someone who has just declared to you (and to the system!) that they're your friend, "Well, actually, I don't consider you a friend."

(Part of the problem is this bizarre notion in social-networking sites that the concept of "friendship" is binary. Either you're friends with someone or you aren't; no gradations, no subtleties. Some sites (perhaps most by now) do allow you to privately label your friends as being "close friends" or "good friends" or ordinary friends or "friendly acquaintances" or whatever, but even those categories seem insufficient to me--and the fact that those categorizations are hidden from the people they apply to seems to me to show that there's something wrong with the model the sites are using. More on this later in this entry.)


Eventually, along came LinkedIn. Finally, a site where connections were useful for something other than dating! And it explicitly said that you shouldn't add people unless you trusted them and would recommend them (or something like that). I figured I could afford to be a little picky about who I added there.

But of course it turned out not to be so easy. There are people who'll add anyone, even total strangers who once worked at the same company. (I do say no to requests from people who I've literally never even heard of, or never had any kind of interaction or contact with, but even then it makes me a little tense.) And of course if a casual work acquaintance asks to be added to your connections, and you decline, they may see it as something of an insult; even in this supposedly business-oriented system, middle-school social dynamics still come into play.

Joining Facebook

Which brings me to Facebook. Mary Anne and I were talking a week ago about--oh, I don't know what first brought it up. Scrabble? Friends? Online interaction? And I realized that I had no real concept of what Facebook was like; I'd seen lots of MySpace pages (most of them horrendously ugly, cluttered, and impossible to find useful information on), and had always assumed that Facebook was basically the same. But Mary Anne said Facebook was actually fairly attractively laid out, and she said it had some neat filtering mechanisms for seeing subsets of friends-of-friends, and I knew that various friends of mine regularly played Scrabulous there, so I figured it might be interesting to take a look.

(There was also age stuff going on in my head; I still think of Facebook and MySpace as both being focused on college students, even though I know they've both gone beyond that, so I always figured I was too old to join them. But hey, isn't one's 40th birthday the ideal time to join a site focused on college students?)

So M invited me, and I signed up, figuring that as with Friendster I would wander by now and then for a week or so and then get bored and not bother going back.

And within two and a half hours after joining Facebook on a Saturday morning, I had ten friend requests. (From people who were actually my friends.) I was kind of astonished. And, of course, gratified. People like me! Yay! Some part of my psyche never really left 8th grade behind.

It turned out that when she'd invited me, Mary Anne had picked several people from her own friends list and told the system to tell them I was joining. And it turned out that Facebook has a remarkable automated system that examines friend networks and tells you "these are people you might know." Some of those are people I've never heard of, but some of them are old friends who I had no idea were on Facebook.

And unlike some of the other social networking sites I've tried, Facebook seems to keep people coming back--perhaps because there are activities there other than rating your friends. Some friends of mine have apparently been regulars there for months or longer.

Friend requests on Facebook

At any rate, when I joined, I told myself I would follow my usual policy of accepting friend requests from anyone. But most of the first 40 or so friend requests I got were from people I'd had actual face-to-face conversations with, so I started thinking maybe it would be easy to be more selective after all; and the one request from someone I didn't know at all was so charming that I said yes.

But then, inevitably, I got a few more friend requests from people I don't really know--mostly people I've had a few brief interactions with online. (Including a couple of people who read my journal--hi, and sorry to be slow responding to your requests.)

I talked with some friends who'd been on Facebook for a while to ask what the etiquette there is about this kind of thing, and they nicely reminded me of things I would've known if I'd thought about it more--most importantly that perhaps it's not a great idea to take social networking sites too seriously. And also that, as with all these networks, different people have wildly different standards; some believe in signing up as friends with as many people as possible, while others accept friend requests only from close personal friends.

In the end, I think what'll work best for me is translating "friend" to something like "friend or friendly acquaintance or someone who might become one of those, or other connection as seems appropriate." 'Cause life's too short to sit around stressing about whether it's really accurate to label a given person as a friend or not.

That said, I don't send very many friend requests myself. (Partly due to the flip side of the middle-school dynamic: what if I try to friend someone and they say no? That would be REJECTION! That would be awful! That would be the end of the world! Sigh.) Which of course leaves the possibility that actual friends of mine will feel insulted that I'm not friending them.

Social networking theory

When it all gets to be too confusing, I take comfort in re-reading Cory D's snarky but fun (and all too true) essay "How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook." (And btw, Cory links to some papers by danah boyd that are, like everything I've seen of hers, worth reading, such as her "Facebook's "Privacy Trainwreck": Exposure, Invasion, and Drama" piece from September of 2006, about what turned out the be the first of several privacy-related trainwrecks at social-networking sites in the past couple years.)

I know this entry's already too long, but I can't resist going on a little longer about this "friends" thing.

Every few weeks, I see another email or article or blog entry attempting to fix the problem with some new algorithm/paradigm. The last one I came across was from a blog called Building the Sex ("a blog about creatively using technology to enrich our sex and fantasy lives," by Craig Ambrose), an entry titled "social networking with non-binary relationships"; it suggests that letting users specify their relationships in ways other than "friend" or "not-friend" would help. I like the idea, especially the example from audioscrobbler where you can enter freeform text like (Ambrose's example) "Craig fights ninjas with Frank." A fun idea. But as Ambrose notes, that's just a gloss on top of an underlying binary system. He goes on to suggest that sites "stop asking users who they are friends with--" (I nodded in agreement) "--and start trying to compute it quantitatively."

And that's where I disagree with pretty much everyone I've seen write about this, because I don't agree that throwing more technology at the problem will solve it.

The problem isn't that we don't have a good enough mechanism for quantifying or labeling friendship. The problem is that we're social animals and that a lot of us are still stuck in 8th-grade social paradigms, where what other people think of us is vitally important. By and large, for most of us, indications that people like you feel good, and indications that people don't like you feel bad. And if you like feeling good, but you don't want to make other people feel bad, then any site that in any way tracks who your "friends" are is going to run afoul of what Cory refers to as boyd's law; more generally, you're inevitably going to run into situations where one person wants to be acknowledged as a "friend" (of whatever sort) and the other person doesn't want to do that.

So from my point of view, the issue is trying to apply labels and quantities to relationships in any kind of formalized and semi-public way. In real life, many of us go to great lengths to avoid doing that. In real life (as adults, anyway), it's rare (except in romantic relationships) to have someone come up and demand that you describe how you view your relationship with that person.

I think most people have social interactions that aren't easy to characterize. Person A may have a crush on person B, but tries to behave as "just friends." C may like D a lot but never thinks to call them up to chat. E and F may be friends who sleep together whenever they see each other, but that only happens every few years. G and H and J may have a great time whenever they get together to see a movie, but no two of them really have much to say to each other when they're alone together. K and L may have been co-workers or neighbors for ten years, and wave hello in a friendly way every day, but know nothing about each other's secret fears and dreams. M and N might be lifelong close friends who've never explicitly told each other how much they mean to each other. P might like Q a whole lot more than Q likes P. R might love to spend an hour a week with S, but gets tense and annoyed if they're forced to spend more than an hour together. T and V may have a close relationship in email but have a hard time talking in person. And so on and so on.

Normally I'm a technophile. Normally when humanists say "Computers are inherently antithetical to anything having to do with human emotion or interaction," I disagree. To me, computers are a major social enabler.

And I still love the idea of mapping connections between people. But whenever I try to do it in my own head, I run into major definitional problems--what kinds of connections count as connections? And what kind of connection is the connection between those specific two people, anyway? So my conclusion, at this point anyway, is that the social networks' attempts to characterize and quantify relationships are misguided and doomed. I'm not saying it can't be done--but none of the approaches I've seen seem to me to do a good job of modeling the way the real world works, and most of the approaches I've seen end up having unfortunate social consequences.

Other aspects of Facebook

Anyway. I'm enjoying Facebook, but as I figure out more about how it works, I'm getting more frustrated with it--most particularly with the fifteen different views that all show variations on the same kinds of news/notes/announcements information, and that aren't connected in any obviously coherent way. But it's still pretty neat, and glancing over the "news" feed there doesn't take nearly as much time as reading everyone's blogs.

And the games are fun.

So I'll probably stick with it at least for a little while longer.

6 Responses to “Facebook, friends, and social networking sites”

  1. Paul Jessup

    On Facebook you can also say how you know someone- friend of a friend, someone you worked with, barely know them, etc.

    I sent you a friend request because Facebook told me your had joined up, and I guess we had friends in common. I barely spend any time on there anymore, but I used to be at it like crack (no thanks to Ekaterina Sedia for getting me hooked for that short time).

    For awhile I accepted any friend request I got- until I got two from people in Erie (where I live) and they ended up spamming me terribly. Horribly. Like every five minutes adding something to my profile and making clutter.

    So I deleted them, and now only friend people I know in Real Life, or people I know who they are (for example, I read your blog, so I know you won’t spam the hell out of me).

  2. Vardibidian

    One of the things about LJ friend-ness is that it isn’t reciprocal. I mean that in Real Life (vaddevah dat means) you are my friend if and only if I am your friend, but the fact that I want to read your journal doesn’t imply that you want to read my journal.

    Or, more deeply, it’s hard for me to imagine thinking I’m Jed’s friend but Jed isn’t my friend or Jed’s my friend but I’m not Jed’s friend for any acceptable real-world sense of friend. But I can easily imagine us each having journals on specific topics/areas, and my wanting to read yours but not wanting you to read mine, or wanting you to read mine and not wanting to read yours, or other non-reciprocal arrangements. Which of course LJ can handle as a practical matter, but it seems very awkward as a social matter.

    And that’s not counting that, for instance, I want to read Jon Carroll’s column in the SFChronicle, but I don’t feel disappointed that he doesn’t read my Tohu Bohu, nor do I feel that reading his column gives us any sort of personal connection or acquaintance. There are LJs that aspire to be like that, or that have become more or less like that, but within the LJ world they are friends. And I believe a similar thing applies to political groups on Facebook/MySpace, with somewhat different but still profoundly misleading terminology. Which reminds me that I have an essay to write on blogs, politics and FDR.


  3. Josh

    I totally agree that a more complex system for indicating the quality/nature of a friend connection isn’t going to help anything; I certainly have in my own mind a sense of who my friends, close friends, casual friends, people I sort of know, etc, are, but I don’t think it would do anyone any good for me to publish that to the world (and vice versa). It’s such a subtle and changeable thing! At what point did she shift from being someone I had a crush on to a friend to someone I sort of knew to being a close friend to being just an ordinary friend again? I don’t want either of us to feel like we need to put dates, numbers, and labels on our friendship.

    I do like the Facebook feature of asking how you know someone, which seems like useful information and also unlikely to change much, although it’s slightly weird in the case of people to whom you have multiple connections (e.g. we’ve been roommates, friends from school, and co-workers; or more unusually, I met this person through both a friend from college and a friend from work completely independently).

    I also really liked that LinkedIn was explicitly about people you have worked with, enough to know what kind of a person they are to work with, but I also agree that it’s drifted away from that now, and in practice, it seems awkward to reject a link to a friend who I haven’t actually worked with… Especially because if they’re looking for a job somewhere where I know other people, and someone there sees the connection to me, that might help my friend’s chances (or hurt them, I suppose, depending :^).

  4. Cheryl Myfanwy Morgan

    This is most definitely something we are groping our way towards understanding, which is why I follow danah boyd’s blog.

    I think you are right that technology doesn’t help in terms of representing “friendship”, but it can help to have different levels of privacy control. I’ve seen people using this very constructively on LiveJournal.

    As for Facebook, the thing that really bugs me is applications. I don’t trust most of them, and I certainly don’t have time to play games, but a lot of the applications seem to force you to invite other people before you can install them, and I suspect that quite a few of the people I have on my flist just spam their entire flist with every application they add. I wish people would use Causes to promote things they believe it rather than pick up every cause-related application that comes around.

    I am, by the way, one of those people who will accept a friend request from anyone. After all, I never know who might have been an Emerald City reader, and just recently one who lives in Brazil friended me. But I am circumspect about sending out friend requests myself because I suspect there are people out there who might be embarrassed to be publicly identified as one of my friends.

  5. jaipur.livejournal.com

    Hi Jed! I thought the whole point of setting up an algorithmic method of representing and measuring relationships was to allow more complexity than our words can currently describe. E.g., you could see an automated system keeping track of a bunch of different kinds of connections between people online–how often do they interact? How long and how polysyllabic are the interactions, relative to other interactions the same people have? How often are there hours and dates included (e.g. setting up an offline meeting)? How many nodes in the social network do they have in common, and how close? etc. Make it multivariate, and you can capture all the possibilities that you described. Without ever putting labels like “friend” or “qualified friend” on it.

  6. Kir

    Something about the “stuck in 8th-grade social paradigms, where what other people think of us is vitally important” is itching at me, and I can’t figure out exactly what. My mind is tossing up images from leGuin’s Always Coming Home, relationships I know/have/had, you own lovely alphabet-named illustration of real relationships… maybe with more time I would draw this together.

    All I can get to is this: what we think of each other is vitally important. It frames us, spans us, separates us, connects us. I don’t think that’s the “8th grade social paradigm”, because it’s deeper than merely popularity or classification into cliques — and the 8th grade (or whenever) is part of our training, learning, growing to experience the wide, wordless variety of relationships.

    Hm. Maybe that does scratch my itch.

    Anyway, interesting and thought-provoking post, even/especially the bits I’ve not commented on.


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