Social networking labels

I just had the next big idea in social-networking sites.

Okay, not really. But I did come up with a further elaboration on something I (and others) have discussed before about such sites.

The problem: the binary and reciprocal label of "friend" is a bad paradigm for modeling real-world relationships. (Scroll down to second half of that entry, under the heading "Social networking theory"; see also various people's comments on that entry.) Someone sends me a friend request, I have to decide whether I want to label them publicly as a friend; that just isn't a good fit for the ways in which people really interact and really see each other.

There are various sites that allow non-binary overlays on the binary system; for example, in Facebook you can specify how you know someone (by specifying any or all of nine possible options), and in LJ you can set up "friend groups" with varying levels of access.

But you still have to start by labeling them as a "friend."

And not only does that not model the real world well, it isn't very Web 2.0. Web 2.0, it seems to me, isn't just Web 1.0 + social; it's Web 1.0 + social + folksonomies (+ a certain style of graphic design + interactivity + a few more things).

So: why not apply the user-developed-classification idea to social networking sites?

Here's the core of my idea: I should be able to apply any labels I choose to any user of such a site, not just to people who I'm willing to label as a "friend."

In other words: Throw out the binary system entirely, and replace it with a system in which anyone can apply any set of labels/tags to anyone else.

That way, instead of trying to decide whether someone who once submitted a story to us is my "friend," I could label them as "SH submitter." Someone could use combinations of labels like "high school" and "friendly acquaintance" and "had big crush on them" to give a much clearer picture of how they do and/or don't know someone else.

I came up with this while lying in bed half-awake on Thursday morning. (I should add that it's not all that different in basic concept from some stuff I mentioned in the social-networking-sites entry I linked to up above.) Unfortunately, as I gradually came more awake, I realized that it wouldn't work.

There are a couple of big problems with it:

  • It wouldn't produce an easily explored web of friends, the way social-networking sites do. If A labels B as "met at a party" and "don't know them," then it's pretty hard for the software to put together any sort of useful internal representation of the social graph.
  • It wouldn't go viral, the way social-networking sites do. When you add a friend on Facebook, all your other friends see that you've added that person; they can go check them out, and if they know the person, they can add them as a friend too. Part of the reason that social-networking sites are so popular is the effect I mentioned in that other entry: people like being told that they're someone else's friend. Makes 'em feel good.
  • There are at least three options for how public the labels would be, and none of them work well:
    • Labels are completely private. Exacerbates the above issues; if there are no public connections between people, it's no longer really a social networking site.
    • Labels are shown only to the person you label. Still not really much of a social networking site, and means you can't use labels that the other person would be unhappy with if you want to stay on friendly terms with them.
    • Labels are completely public. Still has the above issues re exploring the graph and going viral, and means everyone knows what you think of everyone else (so there'd be social pressure to leave out labels and/or lie).
  • The system is subject to abuse. People could use public labels that don't have anything to do with how they do or don't know each other, including derogatory ones: "annoying," "stupid," racial epithets, etc. A group of people could decide, for fun, to spam a random stranger with a particular label. And so on.
  • The system doesn't solve the problem Cory D pointed out: that people will ask you to label them as friends, and will be upset if you decline.

Still, I think there are possibilities here. For example, the how-public-are-labels issue could potentially be resolved by techniques such as letting the labeler indicate which level of publicness each instance of each label has, and providing a set of common labels that people can use if they don't want to create their own. (If the only common label you provide is "friend," and you don't allow custom labels, then you've got today's social-networking sites.)

And you could do interesting things with possibly exposing labels if/when people use complementary labels for each other--for example, one of the publicness levels could be "reveal this to other person only if they apply this other set of labels to me," so if two people both label each other as friend or crush or spouse or whatever, they could see each other's labels. (I think Orkut does something similar to this, but less general, with crushes.)

Anyway, it seems clear that the original idea per se wouldn't work in the real world, and wouldn't resolve my issues with how "friends" systems work. But I'm posting this anyway, in case it sparks any further ideas that would be more practical and more useful.

4 Responses to “Social networking labels”

  1. Anne

    Nod. I’m planning to apply a number of these ideas to sfstorywatch, which is in the midst of design, to help people share recommendations and info about what they’ve read with each other. I suspect to a certain extent I’m going to get around some of the implications of friend labels by avoiding the original livejournal path of defining functionality by link type( e.g. setting who shows up on the page of things you’re notified of or read based on who is your “friend”. Social designators should perhaps be separate from access and tracking designators, but then there’s also the function of social discovery – I met this person because they were a contact of this other person – which I think is also one of the big functions networking sites support. Not just authentication and tracking, but also discovery.

    In sfstorywatch we’re thinking of letting people make up their own tags (for stories or people) but then have a stage where an editorial stage is involved (with volunteer editors, a la slashdot) before those tags actually get applied/made public. This is to prevent the chances of, as you noted, tag attacking campaigns and such, while also having the chance to eliminate redundancies (by misspellings or uses of singular and plural, etc) of tags that are basically the same, but slightly different, to merge tags together and shape the folksonomy. Which is a politically tricky subject in and of itself.

    But letting people make up their own labels for people, and decide whether those labels are a) private to themselves, b) just visible to the person who was labeled, c) just visible to _everyone who got the same label_ , d) visible to all their contacts, e) completely public seems like potentially a good way to go. Right now the livejournal model, for instance, makes it impossible to know who else is within a filter, which is a sort of social circle, apart from who posts within the filter (unless someone posts the list of people in the filter), which is frustrating.

  2. jere7my

    I think of the web’s word “friend” as being cognate with, but distinct from, the word we use in day-to-day life. My desktop doesn’t behave very much at all like the top of a desk (e.g., pencils keep rolling off it); why should I expect my LiveJournal “friends” to correlate one-to-one with my real-world friends?

    So I guess I don’t grok why people have a problem with saying they’re “friending” people they don’t like or know (ignoring, for the moment, the fact that verbing weirds language). It’s just a word — down deep, it means as much as “werbling” or “pippitockulating” them. Seems like it’d be easier to change the way we think about the word than it would be to come up with a whole new system. (Perhaps we could spell it “frending”?)

    Also, I don’t like “zir”. Just throwing that in there.

  3. Anonymous


  4. Jed

    Anne: Somehow I missed your comment back when you posted it. Neat ideas.

    I just had a further thought about publicness of labels: one of the publicness levels could be “public if approved by labelee.” Which wouldn’t eliminate the angst over someone asking to be publicly called your friend, but would solve some of the problems I mentioned. Your label moderation system also sounds like a useful approach, though yeah, editorial shaping of folksonomies is indeed a tricky subject.

    J7y: I did see your comment, and was intrigued by it, but somehow neglected to respond to it; sorry about that.

    I definitely like the idea of thinking of the online term “friend” as being a distinct word from the real-life term “friend.” But I’m not sure I can adjust my thinking to adapt to that idea. And it seems to me that there’s a spectrum among members of any given social networking site (or SNS, as I gather they’re being called now), from people for whom online-friend means “anyone I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with or think I might someday like to have some kind of interaction with, or have heard of, or think is interesting” to people for whom friend means the same thing it means in RL. So I think it’s tricky to apply that label when different people may mean very different things by it.

    Re “It’s just a word”—I’m always a little dubious about arguments along those lines. All words are arbitrary—and yet, most words have meaning, often significant meaning, to the people who use them. Words can result in bar fights and wars; they’re one of our main means of communication; so it doesn’t surprise me that people have a lot of emotional investment in what various particular words mean.

    To put it another way, the “all words are just arbitrary” argument is true as far as it goes, but you have to expect that people who hear/read your words are going to interpret the words according to their understandings of the meanings of those words, rather than according to the idea that the words are arbitrary and can mean anything.

    I’m not a big fan of “zir” either—but I would rather use it than require people to guess that when I say “he” I mean “he or she.” (But at the moment I would rather use singular “their” than either of those—it has the big advantage over coined words like “zir” and “ta” and “thon” that you don’t have to explain it. I used “thon” for a while, and “ta” for years, and it was kind of a pain.)

    Anonymous: I’m sorry to hear you won’t be coming today or Monday. I’m unclear on who you are, where you’re not coming, and why you felt the need to tell us all, but sometimes life is full of little mysteries. At any rate, thanks for posting a comment here and thereby alerting me to my lack of response to Anne and J7y.


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