The Noisy Channel

 

Putting the Social back in Social Networks

December 25th, 2008 · 3 Comments · General

Merry Christmas / and Happy Newton Day to all! I hope all of you are spending some time offline for the holidays.

I couldn’t kick my daily blogging habit, especially after I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the dreadful controversy of unfriending people on social networks:

Now, people who have accumulated hundreds, or in some cases more than a thousand, friends are cutting loose some of the ones they have lost touch with or who were little more than acquaintances from the start. It’s a shift from the days when users, eager to boast about their online popularity, added new friends with abandon, whether or not they really knew them.

Even Michael Arrington has chimed in with a post about the meaning of friendship. It’s one of his more soberly written pieces; perhaps the holiday spirit is getting to him. His argument in a nutshell:

It’s clear that the more friends you have on any given service, the more noise you have to wade through to find the golden signal. In the real world when you don’t want to be friends with someone, you just find ways not to spend time with them. But online, you click that friend button because it seems so easy, and it’s considered insulting if you don’t. And then you pay.

When I was a child, I remember the importance placed on the notion of a “best friend”. The key, of course, was scarcity. You could only have one best friend, and public declaration of who was your best friend enforced this constraint.

If online social networks are going to claim the same validity as their offline counterparts, they need to reflect the real-world scarcity of attention. Otherwise, the notion of an online social connection becomes a sham.

For example, we know that no one can possibly maintain thousands of meaningful social relationships. Hence, if you are one among the thousands of people that someone is following on Twitter, then you should assume that your relationship with that person isn’t worth the bits its printed on.

Hopefully we’re smart enough as human beings to figure this out. But it would be nice for the online social networks to actually reflect attention scarcity constraints. Then we might be able to leverage them to build far more useful applications.

On that note, I’m going offline to spend the day with my most important connections.

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben Shoemate // Dec 27, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Perhaps what needs to be changed here is the use of the word “friend”. I prefer linkedIn.com’s term: connection. Having a connection simply means you recognize that this person and your self are a part of the same community and share something in common. Even if it is nothing more that existing at the same time on the same planet – cosmologists will tell you that alone is a fantastic coincidence.

    I agree with what I heard Robert Scoble say on this subject – There are easily 100,000 interesting people on the world, and I’d like to “follow” them all. I wont necessarily put them all in the “friend” category but if you had the opportunity to be a contemporary of Shakespeare or Jesus or Aristotle you’d be a fool not to try and be a fly on the wall to their conversations. Not for the ego, but for the experience.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Dec 27, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    I agree in preferring “connection” to “friend”, but there’s still an issue of attention scarcity. Given the relatively low attention demands of LinkedIn, it’s not implausible to have 1,000 people with whom you share some kind of professional relationship. But when I see someone following 10,000+ people on Twitter, I can’t imagine what value that person obtains from doing so.

    I’m sure there are many interesting people whose ideas I’d love to incorporate into my life. But the constraints of reality make us prioritize how we allocate our attention.

  • 3 With friends like these… « Electric Squid // Jan 8, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    […] what are social networks good for? Are they only good for throwing sheep? Are they just vast databases of dubious friend lists? My answers are: 1. I suspect a lot, 2. no, and 3. no. Before I start spewing rhetoric about online […]

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