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Social Networks and the Friendship Hierarchy

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In the real world friendship is a big deal. It has meaning. It has to be earned. Losing it can be devastating.

But in the detached, bloodless world of the Social Network much of that meaning is lost. It’s almost as if the same word is used to describe two states that differ profoundly.

There’s a very good reason that social networks use the term ‘friend’. Simply put, it’s good for business. It adds value to what they do. If Facebook were to suggest we “find new acquaintances” or “make new connections” they’d still be operating out of Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room. Connections work for LinkedIn, which has at its core a non-social, almost clinical networking purpose, but “Friend” is a big word, a simple, profound and potentially profitable word. It’s a critical source of Facebook’s success. But the use of the term isn’t at all convincing, and far worse, is damaging and socially corrosive. The Social Network commoditizes and verbifies friendship, appropriating its value along the way, and demeaning the very concept of friendship – which is after all part of the glue that holds humanity together.

It’s the sanitized uniformity at the core of Social Networking that is also its profound weakness. For real life friends, the social network is essentially superfluous. Real friendships don’t need the artificial landscape of Facebook. They did very nicely before it came along, for thousands of years in fact. For obscure acquaintances, and former friends one has lost touch with etc, the term “friend” invites expectations that almost certainly will not be met. The constant swirl of meaningful friendships subtly devalued by the flat-lining semantics of the social network and those meaningless ‘friendships’ overvalued by the same social network make for a rather dysfunctional, intimacy free landscape, driven by habit, marketing, and an unnatural distortion of human relationships.

In short, they are a geek’s paradise.

Facebook and any other network that trades in ‘friends’ are essentially a game, where the counters are people, or at least their avatars, i.e commodities. (Those networks that don’t trade in ‘friends’ such as Twitter (which counts “Followers”) wisely avoid false judgments of ‘friendship’ and instead offer a more honest and objective functionality.)

The ‘friend’ driven social networks have various approaches, formats and characteristics, and one of the most amusing is the differing value of ‘friends’ among each of the main networks. All score low in terms of real value, but some are almost monumentally worthless as markers of true friendship.

In short, social networks create a very real hierarchy in friendship.

Let’s say the total value of human relationships is 100. So we can break down the value of these relationships as follows;

Real-world Friendships (including marriages, family, or long-standing business relationships)  98 pts

Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Bebo, Hi5, and similar networks (classmates from a previous generation, conference card-swappees, ex-lovers, someone you chatted incoherently with at a very loud party) 1.9pts

Foursquare / Gowalla / Plancast (all of the above sourced mainly from your Social Networks). On Geo-locating networks or other info share approaches people you don’t know will friend you just because you are ‘cool’ enough to use the service.  0.1 pt

Friends, in the real world, on Facebook, and yes even on Foursquare, it’s really time we stopped taking Social Networks so seriously.

PS Don’t forget to tweet this post 😉


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Written by coolrebel

February 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm

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