Mark Trapp

Friendship in the digital world (Part 1)

One of the fundamental concepts in social media is the idea of Friendship: in order to participate in any social network or to utilize any of the social media tools, one needs to have friends. From a purely technical perspective, a friend is simply a connection on an individual’s social graph: a similar entity that has been defined as “connected” to the individual.

But that simple connection isn’t defined, in any normative sense, by the technical implementation. Users are free to define that connection however they wish. For example, if I wish to define all my friends in a social network to be everyone named “Jeff,” there’d be nothing to stop me from doing so. I could go to my friends page and marvel at all the people named “Jeff.”

But that’s not really what we consider friendship, and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who’d find some substantive use from a social graph like that. So what could we consider real Friendship?

Friendship: relative or normative?

Before I go and talk about possible answers to that, there’s another gotcha to the whole problem: what one person considers Friendship isn’t necessarily what another considers Friendship, and there’s nothing to prevent two people from using their social graphs in different ways. So while you may consider your special relationship with AwesumGirl234 to be a wonderful budding flower, she may only like you, not like like you, or worse yet: she may only befriend you for your pictures of cats.

Scandalous social drama aside, even the kings of normative social networking, Facebook, attempt to fight this problem by setting guidelines and banning those who don’t follow their definition of a “friend.” As I’m sure you experience with your own usage of Facebook, the enforcement leaves a lot to be desired.

Assuming Facebook could determine what one’s motivations were, the restrictions are seen as arbitrary and contrary to what we consider Friendship: if I’ve met a person once offline, does that count? What about a video conference? If they’ve emailed me? It’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to come up with a definition of Friendship arbitrarily and expect people to go along with it. If one defines it as “two people are friends if they shake hands,” there’s going to be a large contingent of disenfranchised people who have preferred the “high-five” as their preferred friend-making nomenclature.

Describing, not defining, Friendship

Instead, we need to talk about Friendship in a way that goes along with what people intuitively grasp about the concept. In that, there are a few things everyone seems to agree on when it comes to the notion of Friendship:

  • Some amount of shared interests Some amount of interest in each other
  • Some amount of stability: that is, fair-weather friends aren’t “real” friends in most people’s books

These concepts, without getting too much into detail, are not only universal for Friendship, but seem to be descriptive of how we see friends in social networks, as well. Even if you’d never consider any of the people you’re subscribed to on FriendFeed to be “friends,” they nevertheless are people who share your interests, people who you are at least ostensively interested in, and don’t fluctuate rapidly.

The devil’s in the details

So what? One may say that this is very vague: it’s not describing anything we don’t already know about friendships.

I’m being purposely vague for a reason: we need to be able to first talk about universal concepts, that we can all agree on, before we can talk about the interesting peculiarities of online relationships that make them so hard to define and manage.


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