Social Enlightenment

Had a nice chat with Alex today, wandering through the streets of Soho, and I got hit by a tiny bit of bird poo enlightenment:

What has been bugging me all along with this social software crap (Facebook, Friendster (RIP), Jaiku, etc) is the way how they shove a person at you, and smash you in the face with the hard question "ARE YOU FRIENDS WITH THIS PERSON? YES/NO". How do you answer that? "Yes, I think this person is likeable, but really, I have met him twice, and we never really talked, so I couldn't really call him a friend, but then again, he is okay and he knows some of my friends, so I wouldn't like to upset him either..."


Almost like playing a text adventure from the early 80s with a twenty-word vocabulary. There's just no room to express the finer points of friendship: it's either on or off.

But what hit me today was that it is really a vocabulary issue. What is really being asked is "Do you think it is okay for this person to participate in this portion of your life?" Accepting a "friendship" on Facebook is just like having a reader sign up for your blog feed, except that you have to manually approve these people, they are not anonymous, and it's reciprocal instead of one-way communication.

So, what Facebook calls "a friend" is what a blog calls "a reader". And once I wrapped my brain around that, I suddenly saw there was no problem whatsoever. I have my friends (and most of them are NOT on Facebook, Jaiku, Twitter, or any other service). And I have these "Facebook friends", for which there should be a better word. Reader? Nah, not interactive enough. Contact? Nah, sounds like work. But logically, these two are different concepts. People who read my blogs are not necessarily my friends, nor do my friends necessarily read this blog.

Participant? Yeah, I like that, though it's a bit too general. Because that's what online presence really is: it's a participatory hallucination, which at best, can give a very good impression of reality. But as so many bloggers are wont to say: "this is not my real life." True. We all have sides which we expose through different channels, and usually choose what we wish to show to different people, all of whom participate in aspects of what we call "our life". So social software is just another channel, althought with a badly chosen vocabulary.

(However, I would still like to see another word for these "Facebook friends".)


Very good thoughts! I have been confused with this same thing, too, but the way you suggest, "contacts like blog readers", it's makes more sense.

--Mari Koo, 06-Sep-2007

Yeah, welcome to the world of tier-based relationships. Concerning blogs, I wouldn't mind a piece of software that would let me control the output based on tiers of readers; personal, close friends, friends at large, the whole wide world. Preferably customizable, so I could decide how many tiers I have.

I'm sure there are some solutions out there, but so far they've been clunky. And truth to speak, it sucks to think about putting your readers/friends/whoever into somekind of category of approval. The added complexity does not really change the YES/NO -question.

--Merten, 06-Sep-2007

I like how contacts are handled in and Jaiku: The vocabulary is pretty neutral ("network", "contacts", although perhaps too business like for some) and the connections doesn't have to be approved or reciprocated.

Merten, I think this is the next big evolutionary phase social networking services and in blogs: We don't need so much a particulars software or service (that again requires everyone of your contacts to use the same service) but an open standard for defining your profile, identity and network connections independently of platform. In turn this information can be read and utilised by various services. These standards actually exist, as combination of OpenID and microformats like XFN and hCard. What is needed is consensus on how to bundle these into one social networking standard.

--Jere Majava, 06-Sep-2007

I am not quite sure that we can build a proper technical solutions if we don't even have the basic vocabulary in place. We are missing a bunch of semantic concepts around these "contacts" and "friends". Maybe the problem is that we're trying to shoehorn too big concepts into too small boxes, relating to Merten's point above. We need to either find concepts which fit in the boxes, or try to grow the boxes in a way which allow extremely rich and detailed descriptions of your relationships (which of course evolve over time, which makes them even more complicated. E.g. we all know people who are nice to meet for 30 minutes at a time but grow annoying if you're stuck with them for a long time.)

(BTW, my current personal favourite is Dopplr, where you just declare your travel profile to be visible to a particular person - they call it "making him a fellow traveler".)

--JanneJalkanen, 06-Sep-2007

Spot on, Janne. The vocabulary is important.

--Tuija, 06-Sep-2007

Yup, although vocabulary on XFN is pretty clear (I find rel="me" especially existentially satisfying), it's not very flexible, and there is continuous debate on what being a "muse" to some one really means.

"Growing the boxes" is hardly a solution: Facebook for one frustrates me every time by insisting on the details on how I know this person without ever giving the quite right alternative. So defining relationships should be both simpler and more personal.

And here's how I think this should work.

There should be only one common term for network relationship. That's it. Something neutral like "contact", or "member in your network". Make it "friend" or "buddy" if you will to, but there's only one, so it shouldn't really matter. Adding someone as a "contact" or to you "network" does not yet convey any meaning of the relationship: this person is just someone you think is or should be part of your social network. Relationships need not to be approved and are thus not necessarily reciprocal, but if they are, this is of course noted.

To define a connection this would be all you have to do. Adding semantics to them would be completely voluntary. And since all relationships are personal, adding semantics to them should be personal as well. This could be done by adding labels or tags to contacts and associating those labels with certain rights or actions. These meanings could be shared, but only to people in question: so if I have bunch of connections and would label them all as my "Friday night drinking buddies" every person in that contact list could copy that label or the whole list of contacts, making it effectively a group.

What would we actually lose by not having a shared vocabulary for social contacts? Maybe after spidering the network we wouldn't be able to build family trees or differentiate business contacts from friendships in our network graphs - which as once a sociologist I really think would be a shame. But other than that? Shared vocabularies are a good thing, lately I've been going on and on about microformats and that's basically what they are. But I'm not so sure if this is a case where we really need that.

--Jere Majava, 07-Sep-2007

Flickr has contacts, who you can also mark as friends and/or relatives. You can choose publicity of a given picture: everybody, friends and/or family and just myself. (Actually what I use this system for is marking pictures "only friends" when my mother

This is otherwise a great system, but I'd still want to have an option to allow viewing to all contacts. Then it'd be just perfect from my perspective, for how I use it.

--Suviko, 07-Sep-2007

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