Anti-Social Networking

The amazing Boone Gorges has recently released yet another wizzo BuddyPress plugin called Invite Anyone (mk 2) . Not content with this I followed a link to a comment thread from which the topic of ‘Friends’ in social networks emerged:

“It seems to me that the asymmetric model of twitter followers is one that encourages fandom rather than mutual connection. ……  we’re probably less interested in encouraging “fans” than in establishing mutually affirmed, symmetric, friend connections. An asymmetric model could cause all sorts of social problems, with people being upset that someone didn’t follow him or her back.”

and more from the same poster:

“Having said all of that, I’ve been talking to a few members of our community lately who feel uncomfortable with facebook-like friending entirely. These discussions have made me realize how little we’ve actually theorized these issues, and how important it is that we do so soon.” (my italics)

and from the next poster:

“On Twitter, if you’re “following” someone, you’re not a fan as well, you’re just interested in what the person is up to, which is why I love how they use the term “follower”. It doesn’t create any connotations or anything, it is what it is. Another reason why terminology is important when developing a product or service!” (my italics again)

[What’s interesting to me is that Twitter has done this and the term has ‘stuck’].

And Boone himself weighed in with :

“It seems overly simplistic to claim that the possibility of asymmetric relationships “encourages fandom”, as Matt puts it. Twitter is a case in point. Just because Twitter is set up such that the only relationships that are technically relevant in the system are asymmetric, it doesn’t follow that the Twitter platform encourages fandom rather than what you might call a more genuine connection. Bidirectional friendships emerge from and supervene on unidirectional relationships without there being a formal structure to describe them. I see this kind of emergence as a strength of the system, as relationships that arise without a formal structure underlying them are on balance more likely to be worthwhile (I would think, anyway).

[But here is where a study might be in order — hands up Dana Boyd? . Perhaps the possibility of asymmetric relations doesn’t necessarily encourage ‘fandom’ but maybe in actual practice this is often the case. Problem is that to compare you’d need  to find a Twitter like service that has does not have this system, and that’s well nigh impossible. Maybe there are other ways of approaching this? ]

From a practical point of view, though, Matt’s right that there are social issues that arise in spaces like Twitter that don’t in spaces like Facebook or BuddyPress. Hurt feelings might be one of them, though I’m skeptical that such consequences are really all that dire, all so-and-so-didn’t-follow-me-back-on-Twitter bitching aside. I’m more interested in what might happen (both good and bad) as members of a professional community start to experience the arc exemplified by the Twitter user lifecycle: feeling uncomfortable about the idea of following people you don’t know, feeling stalked when other start following you, feeling like you have to follow people back, feeling proud when you get certain kinds of followers, and so on.”

This brought back to my mind an extremely perceptive blog posting (a term paper in fact) that a student in my class (Tessa Bricker) wrote several years ago (five to be precise) bewailing the commodification of friendship as she termed it. Entitled ‘Anti-Social Networking: The Commodity of “friend”ship‘ she makes the following points (did I say already that they were perceptive?):

  • “Friendships are built on shared experiences and trust. With social networks, friendships are broken down to the simplest terms. Instead of being based on trust and experiences, friendships in social networks are engaged in for less pure purposes. Instead of quality friendships, services like Friendster, are all about collecting the most friends.”[She writes about Uncomfortable Situations (referred to above), classifying friends and then quality of friendship :]
  • “Social networks cheapen friendship, turning it into a commodity, to be collected not valued for anything other a number or a means to get in contact with someone else.”[And here’s the stinger :]
  • “Social networks are designed to bring people together and they do that successfully. People meet, find dates, make friends, and find employers through social networks. The term friend really shouldn’t be used to describe buddies on the Internet. The term implies more of an emotional bond and connection than most people have with people they meet on the Internet. Social networks are eroding the values placed on friendship by turning friends into commodities.”

So there you have it. The term ‘friend’ should not be used to describe buddies on the internet. How right this is. I think that this is an excellent point, and thanks to a video from Boone Gorges himself it’s possible to change the term on a BuddyPress installation. But what to? “buddy”? After all, it’s called Buddy Press 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Anti-Social Networking

  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Mark.

    When I think about the issue of “friendship” structures in social media and the connections to the word ‘friend’ that your student raises, I’m reminded of when I first traveled to France as a youngster. I had really just begun to learn French at this point. In conversations I had with French peers during my homestay, I referred to various people as “ami”, and I remember distinctly that the French found it strange that I should refer to so many people that way. ‘Ami’ implies a certainly level of closeness that the apparent English equivalent “friend” doesn’t capture, they told me – I should be using ‘copain’ or something like that instead. (Check out this illuminating thread, if you read French: http://web.mit.edu/french/culturaNEH/archives/brown/sentenceforums/truefriend.htm)

    Anyway, the point seems to be that many (most?) concepts from different realms (or languages) don’t fit easily into one-to-one correspondence with each other. What counts as a ‘friend’ doesn’t necessarily count as an ‘ami’; what counts as a ‘friend’ (in meatspace) doesn’t necessarily count as a ‘friend’ (on Facebook). There are some who might see this failure of isomorphism as an argument for abandoning certain ways of talking, which is what your student seems to be suggesting (“the term ‘friend’ should not be used to describe buddies on the internet”). There are others who really dig this kind of mismatch, as the interstices created by the linguistic mismatches are fodder for analysis. I’m willing to be agnostic on who’s being more sensible. But it does point to the fact that the words that we use to describe new kinds of relationship (like ‘friend’) are usually imposed by comparison or by metaphor, and we would be wise not to impose traditional ideas of what counts as (for example) friendship on new relationships that happen to go by the same name. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

  2. Right on Boone. Even though I think Tessa has a good point the fact is that social networking has become ubiquitous in a way that no-one could foresee 5 1/2 years ago when students at Brown were using ‘TheFacebook.com’. And intrinsic to this phenomenon is the notion of connections being called ‘friends’. Users of social networking systems seem to accommodate the cognitive dissonance of friendship implications with ease. Everyone knows that online ‘friends’ are not the same as real friends in real life. But I wonder what feedback I’d get if I renamed ‘friend’ to ‘buddy’ in my new system? Would I get complaints? Would it harm the user interface even? Would ‘friending’ become ‘buddying’? Tempting to try an experiment with the pilot roll out ………

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