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Pondering Friendship Online: Expand Asymmetrically

My real life friend and colleague Glenn Fleishman wrote a thought-provoking article about what a “friend” really is on the Internet, with some musings about how the concept of friendship has been damaged, and even trivialized, by social networking services (see “Pondering Friendship Online: Focus on Intimacy,” 28 May 2010). In part, that led Glenn to delete his Facebook account entirely.

Though I remain on Facebook, I understand where he’s coming from. But I find myself in a slightly different position, where vast numbers of people know me from TidBITS and Take Control and the books I’ve written over the years. The only problem is, despite the fact that these people know a fair amount about me, the reverse is seldom true.

In email, or in person, my lack of knowledge about those who know me has never been a problem, since I’m happy to chat at a Macworld Expo or respond to a nicely worded email message. But those interactions don’t imply anything beyond an introduction, and each of us chooses how much we’re willing to share.

The trouble arises with social networking services, where, other than with Twitter, relationships are all considered to be bidirectional and of equal levels of intimacy. That’s overloading the relationship – just because I might enjoy reading what the actor Stephen Fry has to say about certain topics, I certainly don’t expect that he has the foggiest idea who I am, or necessarily wants to get to know me.

Similarly, I totally don’t mind people reading what I post (largely because I treat everything I say online as public speech), and I’m happy to respond to comments on what I write, but I have only so much spare time and mental bandwidth to take in what’s happening in the lives of near-strangers. Heck, I’m not even as up to date on members of my extended family as I’d like.

It might seem as though I’m in an unusual situation, where large numbers of people know me and might want to connect with me, even though I may know them only slightly at best. But I don’t believe it’s all that unusual, given that many of the people who have friended me on Facebook have between 100 and 2,000 friends.

Almost no one has 2,000 real friends, although many of us probably recognize the names of that many people. Some high school students I listened to on a panel once said that they had many hundreds of Facebook friends because of the tight-knit social fabric of their schools, where each person was never more than one or two degrees of separation from everyone else. No matter the reason, 2,000 friends is ridiculous, and research suggests that the maximum number of people with whom one can maintain social relationships is somewhere between 150 and 300 (depending on whether you prefer Dunbar’s number or the Bernard-Killworth number).

That’s the genius of Twitter’s approach. It’s the only social networking service that lets people follow me without requiring that I follow them back, or even asking me to approve the connection request. (FriendFeed offers asymmetric following too, but it merely aggregates feeds from multiple social networking sites.) I do receive the follower notifications in email, so I can check them if I want, but I seldom do. I’m sure there are various bots and spammers following me on Twitter, but unless they mention me somewhere, I don’t care, just as anyone is welcome to read what I write on the TidBITS site.

In contrast, the bidirectional nature of the other services creates work, and even stress. Most of my time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Orkut is spent approving friend requests. (Okay, I don’t actually approve anyone on Orkut, since I know only a handful of Brazilians, who are the primary users of the service.)

For a while, I tried to evaluate each request individually and approve only those that seemed appropriate, along the lines of Glenn’s thinking of just what constitutes a friend. But because the connections are all bidirectional, I didn’t want to seem standoffish. Although I seldom get to it more than once a month, I now approve most requests because it’s socially easier than rejecting those from people who are merely friends of friends or with whom I might have exchanged email once over the last 20 years.

The downside of this strategy is receiving all the updates from people I barely know. On Facebook, I dealt with that by creating lists for everyone, and looking at updates from only the very small set of people whose lives are connected with mine in some real way. (And honestly, I don’t even do that very often; there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.) I also seldom post anything on Facebook directly, relying instead on a Twitter-to-Facebook gateway called SupaSync, although I usually respond to Facebook comments, thanks to email notifications.

On LinkedIn, I occasionally glance at the email announcing profile changes of people I interact with for work, mostly to note when someone has changed jobs. Since LinkedIn is for business networking, I accept all connection requests without further thought, since you don’t need to know someone in advance to want to do business with them.

And on Plaxo, I do nothing other than hope that its Mac OS X software for syncing Plaxo contact information with Address Book will someday be useful – as far as I can tell, none of my Plaxo contacts have ever changed their contact information. And pretty much every other social networking service, I simply ignore as a time sink (Naymz, I’m looking at you).

So, if you wish to follow me, I’d encourage you to use Twitter (where I have 4,300+ followers) or FriendFeed (600+ subscribers), simply because those are the easiest for me and you’ll see everything I write on Twitter. If you connect via Facebook or LinkedIn or Plaxo, I’ll have to take the time to approve you, and you’ll still see only my Twitter feed.

I’m a friendly guy, and I like meeting new people, especially those who already know something about me. But I’d rather favor those social networks that allow us to connect in ways that match how well we know each other in the real world, even when that means we don’t know each other that well yet. For now, and for me, that means Twitter.

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