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Pondering Friendship Online: Focus on Intimacy

What is a friend? I have a simple, modern definition. A friend is someone to whose home I have been for a social reason, or, if invited, would accept such an invitation. A friend is someone I would invite over to my house, too. A friend is someone I call up or send email to without a particular agenda in mind.

I have found it easy to conflate friend, acquaintance, and colleague into "friend" over the years, partly because I'm gregarious. (Although, being gregarious apparently isn't required. My friend and colleague Joe Kissell says that he finds himself in agreement with most everything in this article despite being a self-described introvert; for his view on what that means, see "Instant Messaging for Introverts," 4 April 2008.)

For instance, our TidBITS and Take Control head honchos, Adam and Tonya Engst, are both close colleagues and dear friends. When they lived nearby, we saw each other every so often, though less frequently than we would have had we not been separated by snarled Seattle traffic. Now a continent apart, we talk even more regularly, mostly about work, but with a lot of personal stuff thrown in. You know, I like them.

On the other hand, there are some people with whom I have worked for years who remain colleagues, but it would be a stretch to call them friends. I would never tell them to their faces that they remain at arm's-length, and it's rare that there's any tension. It's just a lack of being simpatico - an association of feelings and rapport that allows easy communication.

These ruminations about friendship come up every time I'm asked to "friend," "buddy," or partner up with someone in a social network. The fundamental problem with social networks is that they either encourage too much forced intimacy or put one in the position of rejecting genuine friendship.

I have found in my brief forty-two years on the planet that everyone has a different spectrum of friendship. Some people I barely know appear to consider me a friend, and that's typically charming (if perhaps misguided). Other people I have known for many years are still rather formal with me, despite hundreds of contacts.

I generally like most people I meet, and generally can strike up a conversation with any given person. But that doesn't make that person my friend (although it might me make me his or her friend). This all makes requiring an explicit choice - instead of using implicit social signals - rather frustrating and stressful.

David Weinberger, author of several interesting books about Internet culture and information (his most recent is "Everything Is Miscellaneous"), spoke well to this point at the 2003 O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. (His talk is available as a Web page.)

Weinberger is often ahead of his time, and he was speaking about the coming tsunami of social networking. Although I heard him say this seven years ago, it has stuck with me as an apt summary of the problem. He was talking about Friendster, the dominant 2003 social network, when someone named Halley asked him to be a friend:

I have no problem saying, yes, I am Halley's friend. But there are lots and lots of people who might ask me to be their friend for which the situation is much dicier. There are people who are acquaintances, or relatives, or former college housemates I've been trying to avoid for years. There are people for whom I'll press the Accept button not because they're friends exactly but because they're not enough not friends that I want to reject them, or because I want to impress them, or because I want to kiss their butt in public, etc. Friendster asks me to be binary about one of the least binary relationships around.

The binary problem is that someone asking you if you are a friend or not becomes a referendum on the entire relationship you have with that person. If you say No, you're rejecting an offer of kindness; if you say Yes, but mean No, you've set up a new and potentially damaging dynamic; if you ignore the request entirely, the person may notice the lack of response and be hurt.

The social networking services can't simply set up a spectrum of intimacy, either. LinkedIn tries this by asking you how you know someone (did you work together, go to school together, and so on), thus establishing a venue for a connection, since LinkedIn is a business networking site.

But could Facebook ask you to select among acquaintance, friend of a friend, person you once dated, enemy, friend, lover, BFF, drifted apart from, longing to be back together with, and who the heck is that? Pick the wrong choice, and that friend (lover, colleague, nuisance) may be dead to you forever, or may become the new best friend you didn't want.

Of all the social networking services out there, I like the approaches of Flickr and Twitter best. In Flickr, you have contacts, and you can set a contact to be a friend or part of your family. (I have friends I consider family and mark them as family, too.) But Flickr doesn't force you to ask or answer the question.

Twitter's follower/following model doesn't imply much about the relationship, although one could easily argue that the asymmetry of popular people following few and being followed by many is a kind of emergent hierarchy of importance. But at least I don't have to pretend to be Ashton Kucher's friend, nor vice versa. (Early in its history, Twitter had the concept of "friends" as well, and gave it up as being confusing.) Adam Engst also likes Twitter because of how it doesn't overload relationships; see his companion article "Pondering Friendship Online: Expand Asymmetrically" (28 May 2010).

As it stands, I've made some real friends and strengthened many existing acquaintanceships through Twitter, a rare occurrence in my previous 20-plus years on the Internet.

When I killed my Facebook account a few months ago, I had hundreds of friends. I deleted the account because of my disgust over how Facebook was handling privacy, disgust triggered epiphenomenonally by the Google Buzz debacle (see "What's the Google Buzz? Tell Me What's A-Happening," 14 February 2010).

But deleting my Facebook account was also prompted by a growing discomfort at how much of the intimate details of people's lives I was being shown outside the circle of people with whom I have that actual degree of intimacy. It had become almost like The Sims for me, with Facebook showing information about friends of friends, and constantly suggesting new people I might add to my network who I didn't know well or, increasingly, at all.

I had long joked that Facebook was Second Life for your real life, and I already had a real life that was taking up pretty much all of my time.

Facebook and other services could short circuit this problem by letting each user have social circles into which connections could be optionally placed, but which would be known only to the user, not to any friends. Keeping friend details private for you and implicit for others would preserve some of the social compact. (Facebook has a feature called Lists that offers a clunky version of this, but most of my friends still using Facebook are unaware of it.)

But social networks require massive numbers of explicit connections to drive their growth: Facebook would prefer everyone friend hundreds of people, and recommend hundreds more.

My life, however, doesn't favor quantity and growth over quality and intimacy. When we were little and another child asked, "Will you be my friend?" the answer wasn't always Yes, but it probably should have been. In my 40s, and in today's Internet, the answer, I'm afraid, is, "I don't think that's the right question."


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Comments about Pondering Friendship Online: Focus on Intimacy
(Comments are closed.)

Norbert E Fuchs  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2010-05-30 05:05
Friendship is also differently defined in various cultures. Being a German I was highly astonished when an American colleague of mine – pointing out a "friend" of his – did not recall the name of this person.
Thibault  2010-05-30 06:22
Yes, in real life, Americans take the word "friend" loosely. It has it's advantages such as it is generally easy to connect to people but it doesn't mean those friendships are firm.
Thibault  2010-05-30 06:20
I think you take the way Facebook uses the word " friend" too seriously. It mostly means "connected". You can set up lists with people of different degrees of intimacy using Facebook's privacy lists.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-05-30 08:09
But that's vastly too much work for an acquaintance - to accept someone as a connection, and then to make sure they're in the appropriate circle of intimacy list that you have carefully set privacy options for...
Jim Puskar  2010-07-05 14:37
I just recognize that the folks with whom I interact on FB are acquaintances, regardless of what Jeff Zuckerman calls them, and the people who I have more intimate connections with, generally, are my friends.
Eolake Stobblehouse  2010-06-06 11:50
Excellent article (and I'm not even done).

I'm Danish. Scandinavia has a much higher number per capita of Introvert type people than say Italy or USA, and we don't tend to connect as readily, but then perhaps we take it more seriously when we do.

For me, Facebook is just meaningless. It has connected me with a couple of old friends, admittedly... and then after a couple of days of frantic mailing, we somehow just stopped. There wasn't anymore any impulse to socialize once we no more shared a class or a club.
This ought to be widely read! the "friend" concept of Facebook keeps me from joining. Why have to pretend friendship to be part of a network? Thank you!
Corlin  2010-07-05 15:44
Here is an excellent presentation about all of this.

From a new book by Paul Adams.

It is good to know that others are working on this!
Glenn Fleishman  2010-07-05 16:11
That is fantastic. Had I read it first, I might have linked to it rather than written my article.

It describes the issue precisely. Social networks are coarse tools designed for bulk, undifferentiated friend loading that disregards the entire history of human evolution and society.
Sites like Livejournal and its relatives (Dreamwidth, etc.) have a fairly easy-to-use Lists-like feature petty close to their core, with the option to make lists public or private and pretty human-readable URLs for list-based aggregations of content. It's used by many frequent users to control distribution of posts, and to read the posts of different groups of people together. It's pretty much what Glenn asks for. It doesn't stop drama from erupting when outer-circle people figure out that there are posts they aren't privy to, or when a journal author finds out they're being quoted outside their intended group of recipients, but technologically it's more or less there. The public master list of friends on these sites can still prompt some hard decisions, too.
Bruce Klutchko  2010-07-05 20:36
It was a real pleasure to read Glenn's piece on friendship here on Tidbits. It is too often that people forget the meaning of real human interaction when their interaction is online. That doesn't mean that the online interaction can really substitute for the human interaction, but that it happens instead of the human interaction.

I have always believed that human nature has not (yet?) been fundamentally changed by the internet. Therefore, we need to use our internet lives to augment and supplement our real ones.
Michael Gibbs  2010-07-06 02:02
I feel like such a troglodyte. I just don't get social networking. My friends live in the real world and I see them face-to-face. We spend time together, do things together, share our lives with one another. Ones that live too far away for this sort of thing get e-mails or phone calls.

I'm on Facebook because some relatives talked me into it so I can see pictures from family events and such. It's a solution for a specific problem we have. I don't slay dragons there with people I don't know and I don't send quizzes to my friends to find out if they are as romantically challenged as I am. And, as much as I love TidBITS and enjoy reading what Adam and the crew have to write, I just can't see getting one-liners all afternoon about his trip to Starbucks or what cute thing Tristan had to say today (sorry Adam, I'm sure your tweets are more pertinent than that).

I see these sites/activities as largely time-wasters. If you want to be my friend, come on over and say hello.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-07-06 12:11
As I think Glenn's article and mine made clear, there's simply no consistent connection between a real friend and someone you interact with on a social networking service. Maybe they are your real world friend, maybe not. What you have to decide is if the tools provided for interaction are of utility to you, just as you have done with email and the phone (which were decried in their time too).