All "friends" aren’t created equal! (why we need better relationship marking in social networks)

communication tools, people and relationships, society, technology

I’m planning on quitting twitter.  Flickr—at least as a social site—is getting frustratingly unwieldly.  You know why?  Because pretty much all social sites like this treat all my friends, co-workers, acquaintances, online buddies the same, and it’s a big, stupid, completely off-putting mess!

Sure, these services want to reduce complexity… they know that many folks may not want to take the time to put friends into groups.  And eventually, some really smart service is going to actually do it automatically for me (“Hmm… Adam only looks at Fred’s pictures once in a while, but he looks at Mary’s photos minutes after he’s notified of her updates…”).

Look, I’m not an insanely popular guy.  But I have over 600 people in my personal contacts folder.  I regularly interact with tons people at work, and sincerely care (personally) about at least a dozen or two of ‘em (to the point where I want to see their travel photos, want to know when they’re excited or depressed, etc.).  But when people have “friended” me on Twitter or Flickr, I’ve often unselectively reciprocated… and now I’m just getting overloaded.  Too much info.  Too much info I do not care about.

And this is where nearly all social services seem to get things wrong.  At risk of being callous, I could pretty much care less if a distant acquaintance is having an off day or just uploaded photos of his Aunt Elda’s wedding.  But I sure as hell want to know if my office mate is about to arrive at work grouchy or an awesome friend in a different timezone is having a rough week, and so on.  To the extent that social services of all types can eventually alert us to events and feelings that mean a lot to us, that’s a huge win.

Flickr lets me mark someone as a contact, friend, or family.  That’s somewhat useful, but I’d say that these distinctions barely scratch the surface in helping me manage photostreams or viewing permissions.

Facebook lets me mark someone as a “limited friend” (is that like “single serving friends” from Fight Club? :-P), but—again—that’s not all that helpful. 

Why can’t I rank my contacts’ importance on a scale from 1-10… 10 being I want to know their every feeling and action and 1 being I don’t want to be bugged by any notifications ‘bout them unless they’re getting married… and to a hot celebrity.  Or in addition to / instead of degrees of that sort, why can’t I indicate that I want monthly digests of most my contacts, weekly digests of a few, and daily or even as-it-happens updates on my select group of best-friends?

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And it’s not just what I want to know, it’s also about what I want to share.  There are very different things I want to share with my Mom, my recent-ex-girlfriend, most of my colleagues, my closest friends, my roommate, and so on.  I should be able to put my contacts into “share groups”—with easily check-box-able overriding options per shared item—and then quickly and powerfully indicate which groups I want receiving which update or types of updates.

And, again, to the extent to which my preferences and habits can be algorithmically determined (albeit manually overridable) and designed to streamline my sharing and discovery choices, that’s super!  Facebook’s gotta know whose wall I post on most often, who I tag in most of my photos, and so on.  Surely it can make educated guesses on the strength of our ties.

Oh, and just to make things more complicated… it’s not all about only the strength of ties… it’s about context.  Many of my colleagues and friends get excited about news about new geek toys or web sites.  Other friends are in my lindy hop (swing dancing) group, and many of them couldn’t care less about the newest Web 2.0 doodad.

So I may want to share tech stuff with some friends, arts stuff with others, personal musings and rants with close buddies, and so on.  Complicated, yes, and likely with no absolute/easy answers.  But at least the social networking/sharing services could try a bit harder! 😀

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So probably this week is when I’m gonna uninstall twitteroo and give up on both reading and posting occasional updates.  It’s not just a matter of signal vs. noise, which I lamented earlier, but the complete lack of any sort of targeting, grouping, etc.  There are days in which I really do want to read the blatherings of my fellow SEO/SEM/Search-engine geeks.  But some days I just want to know if a good friend is happy or sad.  Or if another friend finally bought her airplane tickets to come back to the States.  Right now, I can neither selectively broadcast nor read notes sorted/filtered by strength or type of ties.  And that’s jarring, frustrating, distracting, and whole ton of other negative adjectives.

I’m not going to delete my Twitter account just yet.  In case it’s not clear, I think there are some compelling cases for this sort of thing… and I’m hoping that eventually the service will help me share and glean what my friends and I are “doing now” with greater granularity and thoughtfulness.

And indeed, I hope other services eventually wise-up, too.  MySpace may be the most popular social network, but it is so (I’m confidently sure) only because of the obnoxiously strong power of the network effect, not because it really supports social sharing and discovery in an effective way.  The sooner other services learn that not all relationships are equal, the sooner the online world will truly help us manage and improve our (real, offline) relationships.

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Updated on June 18, 2007:
I don’t always agree with Robert Scoble’s take on communications and networking and I’m frankly displeased that he’s invoked “nazis” for something far from evil, but I nonetheless think he makes some excellent points (related to my rant above) in his blog entry “Social networks as “friend” Nazi (design flaws in Facebook, Jaiku, Twitter).”

10 comments… add one
  • Adam Kalsey May 14, 2007

    Looks like in 3 years, this problem has become worse, not better.

  • Adam May 14, 2007

    Ah, wow, that’s true, eh?  I wonder why that is… why people haven’t demanded, well, better social networks.

  • drewp May 14, 2007

    “Why can?t I rank my contacts? importance on a scale from 1-10? 10 being I want to know their every feeling and action and 1 being I don?t want to be bugged by any notifications ?bout them unless they?re getting married? and to a hot celebrity.”

    I can’t see how that would help at all with anything, unless you or someone also assigned thresholds to each event anyone creates. Even then it sounds unworkable.

    But, having the interface notice which items you’re interested in, that sounds much better. The new metadata is collected passively, and it can be gently applied as a -sort- of the events for you to read. Read the most important ones first, as they get more boring you can stop. The right UI would be able to notice where you stop and ideally which items you skip over (i.e. they were sorted too high).

    As to sharing, creating and picking groups is ok but obviously you have to do work before there’s any reward, and if you want your sharing controls to get better, you have to put more work into them. Perhaps we can pull the same trick again: the system -watches- where I email/IM that picture at first, and then it can suggest which people I might like to share the picture with. Sharing is permanent, so I guess you have to get my ok before sending anything (as opposed to the importance-sorted event feed). But over time, the ‘ok’ UI ought to get quicker and quicker.

    “This pic was taken from a phonecam during work hours. Look, here are some other phonecam pics from work, where you always showed them to the audience. Do the same thing again?” I glance at the sample past pictures and approve the new one’s ACL.

    cheers
    -drew

  • Huy Zing May 15, 2007

    I feel you Adam.

    Btw, are you happy or sad?

  • Andrew May 15, 2007

    The humble LiveJournal does well. You can assign you friends to different filters. You can subscribe to RSS feeds and add them to different filters too.

    You’ve a default “friends” page which keeps you abreast of everything you want to automatically be told about (shame there’s no RSS of this) and then you can choose to view additional filters if you want.

    For example, I’ve some newspaper RSS on my “newspaper” feed which I filter in if I’ve time to read it.

    The nice thing is that your “friends” can’t see whether they’re on your default friends view or not. The word “friend” has been a bit emotive though.

  • Murphys Aug 10, 2007

    Hey Adam –

    A couple of us were speaking about this in the Dublin office last week.

    The proposal was to have (as mentioned) levels of friendship so that you could define people as being merely an acquaintance right up to BFF’s.

    The only question was – if I received a friend request from someone i barely knew, rating me as a “Friend”, would I have the heart to bump them down to “drunken party conversation partner – so *that’s* what you’re name is….”?

    I’m not sure….

    Stephen

  • Amelia Aug 12, 2007

    Enjoyed your post a lot – found you thru Danah Boyd.

    Totally agree that Social Networks need to move beyond the A List friends and B List friends, life is far more complex than that and the sooner Social Networking technology catches up the better!

    http://ameliatorode.typepad.com/life_moves_pretty_fast/2007/08/pulverizing-our.html

  • John Feb 19, 2008

    Hi Adam,
    Social networking always produce better results in terms of business relationship,
    profile of every members is visible to all,
    I prefer this activity in those places where amount of my friends is more.

  • Jose Mar 25, 2008

    Always take care when you are dealing your business with person through social activity site.
    You won’t get his actual identity.

  • essentialegal Jul 14, 2009

    relationship always builds future of every one, social networking is bridge which connect all of us.

What do you think?