Friendship is complicated

Via Facebook friend Kathryn Corrick, here’s a good post by Meg Pickard on the issues raised by Facebook’s one-size-fits-all definition of friend and the need for more subtle layers. I agree; most Facebook friends of all stripes I know would agree as well. Combining college friends with work friends with friend-friends with family results in strange and for some uncomfortable juxtapositions of lives — the keg party next to the romance next to the job. And that will only be amplified as young people on Facebook grow older and get new lives.

On the other hand, one can easily overcomplicate this, trying to fit friends into strict definitions. And I think that’s where Meg may be headed in her post. There is a natural reflex to try to order everything in our worlds. But life is essentially disordered, isn’t it?

The bottom line, I think, is that what we want from Facebook is more tools to show some folks some stuff and others other stuff and let us deal with that. Pownce is doing that with the ability to publish to everyone, just friends, or just a group of friends. Smart.

But what I want from the larger web is also the ability to present different identities made up of various bits of my stuff: a combination of the work me (this blog or most posts from it, boring Flickr conference photos, Twitters from those conference, and so on), the home me (family photos, including an embarrassing one I’ll soon share of me on a Segway, and the occasional personal post from here), past me (college friends), local me (my Zip Code blogging organized thanks to, and so on.

Pickard lays out the problem simply and graphically:

The trouble with Facebook is that it’s a confused social space. There are too many different facets of personality being exposed through social openness. So much so, in fact, that it gets a bit difficult to manage. For example, at present on Facebook, I have (among others) the following listed as “Friends”:

* My husband
* Several people I’ve known since I was 11
* College friends I haven’t talked to in 15 years
* My boss
* A couple of people from university I’d lost touch with
* Several people I know from t’internet, but haven’t met / don’t actually know
* A few people on a mailing list I belong to
* A handful of family members
* A few people who work for me
* At least one ex boyfriend
* People who I’ve seen around the office but never exchanged more than words of greeting with

While I obviously wouldn’t have connected with these people via Facebook if I hadn’t wanted to, it’s pushing the definition a bit to lump all of them together into the same bucket, labelled “friends”. Why? Because most of them aren’t strictly friends (although they’re all lovely, obviously).

Yes, and I also wish on Facebook that I could add unfriends — the people I don’t know but may want to and vice versa, the people whose befriendings I’ve ignored because of the way Facebook works. This isn’t a matter of privacy, which is usually where the discussion heads: Facebook allows me to show certain people next to nothing of me, but I find that practically insulting to them. No, the real issue it that there are other side-effects of becoming Facebook friends: They enter into my News Feed and have an unknown impact on it (if 12 of the people I really know add an app, that means one thing; if 24 people I don’t know add it, that means, well, not less, but at least something different). Also, my friends say something about me and I about them; the fact that identities and relationships on Facebook are real is, I believe, the essence of its value. So it matters when I befriend someone; it doesn’t mean I’ve made a new friend but rather than I’m confirming a real-life friend. There’s one rather, uh, eccentric fellow who keeps trying to befriend me and everyone out there. I know he’s no more their friend than mine in real life. So when I see him befriended on someone’s page, I know that they are not, shall we say, discriminating. And that says something to me about their relationships with other friends on their lists. It devalues those links. So I try to keep my friend’s list real.

Now having said that, the irony of this post is that I asked the aforementioned Kathryn Corrick to befriend me even though we don’t know each other outside Facebook. But we have a number of friends in common and I bumped into her following the same interests. I had a question for her about something she’d done that related to something I’m doing and CUNY and after a helpful email exchange — and because her smiling Facebook picture makes her look so, well, friendly — I made the ping. And because I did, I saw the link to Meg Pickard’s post in my News Feed and I’m the better for it. Happy ending. But danger lurks there. No, not that I’m a masher; I mean danger for Facebook. It is not, as Mark Zuckerberg has pointed out, intended as a place to make friends but a place to organize friendships. Indiscriminate friend-making is what did in Friendster and devalues MySpace and turns LinkedIn into human spam (I just had to go through 20 clicks to stop its incessant email). So that’s why someone created a Facebook app that enables friends to recommend friends to others, to put some order on that process, too (sadly, I can’t get it working; guess I don’t look friendly). That is the genius of the Facebook platform: People will likely use it to solve Meg’s issues and mine.

But it’ll never be perfect. Life isn’t. Friendship is complicated.

  • And things even get more complicated as people on Facebook tend to use the term “friend” in many different ways: Some try to get as many as possible, others keep it very restricted.

    And finally there are those how don’t even use FB to organize their (private or business) relationships but take it as a simple marketing tool for self promotion…

  • Scott Karp over at Publishing2.0 wrote about the same topic. I totally agree, and I’m kind of surprised that most social networking sites don’t offer more tools to define your relationships more precisely. Being able to share certain information only with certain “friends” would make the sites much more useful…

  • It actually wouldn’t take much to make Facebook friendship granular enough to address most of these concerns. As I posted recently, three simple tiers would probably do it:

    1. Personal Friend
    2. Colleague
    3. Acquaintance

    Each category needs its own privacy settings, and you should be able to apply any or all of the three to a given friend.

    It might be nice to have even more nuance, but I agree — you don’t want to make things any more complicated than absolutely necessary.

  • Jeff, have you tried ? I would like to know what you think about it compared to pownce. I know it’s not quite the same.

  • Jeff, I’m having second thoughts about Facebook: hasn’t it turned into an unpaid MLM? — it sort of looks that way to me… (spreading “applications” — that somebody makes money off of — through peoples’ contacts; it just gets free access to people’s contacts for advertising purposes without compensating *anybody* at *any* level… ) D.

  • This is a great post on the topic.

    I’ve always had misgivings about who to friend on facebook, especially when it comes to co-workers.

    I usually end up putting my co-workings on my limited profile and don’t give them access to anything beyond my profile pic, my employment history, a few photo galleries and my contact info, which pretty much invalidates their access to me via the Facebook network.

    Yet, on the other hand, I have “friends” on Facebook like Rob Scoble and Jeremiah Owyang, who I’ve never met. But they get total access to my profiles for precisely the same reason. They have no connection to me beyond the fact that I’m interested in what they have to say and occasionally want to connect with them.

    But in the end, Facebook is generally very good at granular privacy and will figure this out, I think. Especially with all the talk about this since they opened their doors to people outside of college.

  • Ben Vear

    I waited to use facebook, and begrudgingly joined a few weeks ago. I, too, got annoyed at first when I couldnt classify everything and everyone. However, isnt this a natural function of ‘groups’? Part of the beauty (and power) of facebook is that I can see what all of my ‘friends’ are doing, all the time, whether it’s personal or otherwise. In today’s world, the lines have been completely blurred, and I think this is a good thing. It’s what makes your blog interesting. Most people have caught on to this way of life. My father always has said (for the past 10 years or so) don’t send anything in email that you wouldnt want your mother to read [ he now applies this to the internet]. It’s a rule of thumb i’ve always followed, and one that makes sense. I had an interesting start of a discussion about this on facebook in the “Facebook feedback and wishlists” — . End of day, if facebook limits everything, my friends network becomes a lot less powerful, and the fb aspect that is most appealing — the social leveling that web 1.0 began, web 2.0 continued, and facebook begins to realize — stops. It’s what makes your blog so powerful, and TV ho-hum. I can leave a message and communicate with you directly. Facebook just continues this.

  • Kelv

    It’s just weird having someone you knew as a childhood friend lumped in with someone you work with now and them being able to see each other just because you are a friend to both.

    I think at the time you add a friend you get a pulldown menu of friend groups that you have set up. If you don’t specify one, the friend goes into your public group, mimicking the current behaviour.

    In the permissions for each group, you get a list of all the other groups including public. You then select the ones you want visible to each other, and if anyone from one of those groups views your friends list / wall / etc they only see stuff that came from those groups it is allowed to see.

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  • kashif

    “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
    And say my glory was I had such friends.”

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