Facebook’s Frustrating Friending… and my reluctant choice

people and relationships, society, technology

I have over 500 Facebook friends.  That’s a statement to help you understand my predicament, not a badge of honor.  Of these, a handful are close friends, a big bunch are “regular” friends, a ton of ‘em are colleagues with which I have varying degrees of social contact and interest, and an even larger ton are “acquaintances or less.”  From that latter category, I still value many of those admittedly “weak ties.”  I may not know someone well, but perhaps she and I connected strongly even after just a brief meetup.  Or… maybe I don’t chat with that one fellow much anymore, but he used to be my best friend in high school and I still care about how he’s doing.

But then there are the other “friends.”  People I met once at a conference and exchanged pleasant pleasantries with.  Someone from college who was the girlfriend of an acquaintance.  Or someone who… uh… who is that guy?

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The biggest and most painful flaw in Facebook’s friend-system is that it assumes that two people in a “friendship” see the relationship in the same way… and thus have the same interests (or interest level) in both sharing and learning about each other.  I have no doubt that there are people I’m interested in hearing about (and from), but who absolutely couldn’t give a rodent’s posterior about my latest blatherings or photos.  On a related note, I have work buddies that I enjoy chatting with, but would probably not to subject them to my occasional angst, drinking photos, dating whines, and so on.  As a friend of mine once commented, “You don’t want to see your boss in Speedos” or, more intellectually, many people understandably feel uncomfortable sharing or reading “out of social context.” You get my point.

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Sure, Facebook’s “friend lists” can ameliorate some of these issue a bit.  But not completely.  And the UI is so awkward, so confusing, so annoying, it almost makes setting up friend lists more trouble than they’re worth.

What Facebook needs to do is break the friend-reciprocity requirement.  Just because I’m interested in following a person’s photo stream or reading their latest musings doesn’t mean they want to be forcefed AdamInfo.  More specifically, Facebook needs a “subscription” model, just like what we have for blogs, on Twitter, on Friendfeed, and—for crying out loud—in real life. 

Each person has two rights in this far-more-ideal non-reciprocal friends model:
1) The right to set privacy boundaries, dictating who (individually and/or by group) can access what aspects of their space (profile, activity stream, etc.)
2) The right to follow or subscribe to whatever or whoever he or she wants, subject (of course) to any applicable privacy boundaries mentioned in #1… WITHOUT the other person having to indicate the same level of interest.

There’s also a #3, which I find to be a strongly desirable albeit not required component of this model:
3) The right to more keenly control sharing, so that it’s aligned intelligently not only with the interests of the sharer (as in #1), but also with the interests of the potential reader (related to #2).

#3 might seem redundant, but it’s not.

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A hypothetical example:

Pat has buddies Fred and Jen.  Fred and Pat are fast friends.  In contrast, Pat has a crush on Jen and want to know everything about her, but she doesn’t have the same interest in Pat.

– Clearly, Jen’s gonna want #1 here.  She doesn’t want Pat to see her stuff at all, so she either blocks him or gives him limited privileges. 
– She may, however, want to keep tabs on the fellow to see if he’s spreading rumors or going from creepy to threatening, so she takes advantage of #2 above.

Under the current model, the latter part wouldn’t be reasonably possible.  Jen would have to friend Pat, and wouldn’t that be awkward?! (and potentially hazardous, by sending absolutely the wrong statement).

So then we have Pat and Fred.  As fast friends, they really want to follow everything of each other.  There should be a system, perhaps not only algorithmic (which I believe FB already has in place) but optional-manual as well, which enables the two to indicate, yes, turn on the firehose; let me know when my best friend sneezes.  Again, Facebook has some functionality along this line, but it doesn’t scale well within an account, it’s confusing, and it’s basically a pain in the ass.

This is where #3 comes into play.  Facebook should enable folks to more easily share smartly… e.g., “pushing” those conference photos or blog entry on technology to colleagues, but not gym buddies or high school chums.  Of note, this is NOT the same as privacy; I’m not suggesting that this should be used as a substitute for effective privacy controls or filtering, nor even that the untargeted folks in the above scenario couldn’t view those items if they wanted.  But rather, it’s an issue of respect and priority; it’s less that those folks would be offended and more that they’d be simply bored.  What I’m calling for is a sharing that respects not only boundaries, but likely interests.

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And lastly, we return to the most painful part of Facebook’s current friending model:  the increasing noise to signal ratio.  In other words, when I view my homepage feed, a lot of it is uninteresting to me.  And, alas, I miss tidbits about friends that I am interested in hearing about.  Yes, again, I could use friend lists (and do), but this doesn’t help streamline many other reading or transactional activities on FB; I still have to wade through 500+ names when recommending friends to friends, for instance.

So today I’m finally making that hard choice:  I’m being selfish and reclaiming my addressbook.  I’m removing a not-insignificant-number of folks from my Facebook addressbook (read: de-friending them) not because they stole my girlfriend or poked my eye out with a bb-gun or made me lick Grand Central Station with my tongue (though, indeed, all of those would be good reasons for de-friending), but rather because we don’t really chat so much any more or have drifted apart or never really chatted much socially in the first place,  etc. etc. etc., and the benefit of those weak ties is outweighed by the collective—I hate to use this word—clutter.

Offended?  Blame Facebook.  Or, better, yet, if you’re bummed that I’ve de-friended you, do one or both of the following:
Contact Facebook and let them know that it’s high time they update their friending system to improve sharing & privacy and reduce awkwardness.
Follow me on FriendFeed (and, obviously, feel very welcome to engage in conversation with me there).

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Thanks for your understanding :-D.  Also, why not share your thoughts below on how Facebook Friending works?

3 comments… add one
  • Vic Jan 25, 2009

    I recently got a warning for adding to many friends to fast. The sad thing is that I am not that popular so i can only imagine those people who have hundreds of friends are going through!

  • Mona N. Jan 28, 2009

    Hey Adam, great points. I think there’s a way to set privacy options by assigning contacts into ‘groups’. The down side is, it is tedious lol. I have the opposite problem form you, actually. My real friends (non Internet addicts) are de-friending me, since my activity volume is too high… Not sure how I feel about that haha!

    Take care,
    Mona.

    ps. I love how the captcha text is your name LOL

  • Adam May 24, 2009

    JohnWeb, good point about the “more from” and “less from”… though I think that was in the old Facebook; I believe in the new lousy all-or-nothing front page, you either show a friend or don’t.  Like you, though, I have made friend lists which has indeed made things a bit more sane 😀

    Jason, looks like FB heard you and *did* finally make some default lists for folks.

    Vic, maybe you’re more popular than you realize 😀

    Simone, glad someone understands 😀

    Mona, yeah, FB doesn’t exactly make it easy or even somewhat convenient to add friends into groups.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if they took a few notes from FF and let you change a friend’s group membership by hovering and clicking?

    Tour, I’m afraid I’m not Facebook.  You’ll need to chat with those peeps.  Maybe they were annoyed by your link spamming?

    Ryan, didn’t realize Orkut offered any better filtering mechanisms nowadays 😀

What do you think?