Victor Keegan in the Guardian (U.K., 6/7/07) expresses something that I’ve been feeling for a while that social network software and sites (like MySpace or FaceBook or LinkedIn) are causing people to measure their ‘friendships’ in a cheapened currency. I have not seen strong research on this, but I suspect that almost all of the ‘friends’ on these sites are not ones that could be relied on for important purposes (getting job leads, borrowing $100, watching ones’ kids while one went on a job interview, bringing you chicken soup when you’re sick).
I know these sites call them friends, and users call them friends, but (inverting an expression), just calling it a duck doesn’t make it quack like a duck or walk like a duck.
Keegan’s “Collecting friends is new philately“, as the title suggests, observes that people are now collecting friends the way others used to collect coins or stamps or shells.
Keegan writes: “People invest large amounts of social capital in these sites – spending hours entering photos, address books, videos etc. They can import other sites, such as Flickr.com, so they in effect become a permanent home page from which they don’t move away during the day. This makes a mockery of statistics based on page views, since users might be hyperactive on the web but seldom move from their home page, thereby embedding their loyalty. No wonder web giants such as Yahoo!, unable (interestingly) to use their own massive leverage to set up big enough social sites of their own, are gobbling up all the successful new-generation startups.
“These new sites are making personal relationships more intimate (based on communal interests or hobbies as well as flirting) on a global scale. The likes of Facebook have added a fresh layer of communication. Email facilitates links with people you would never otherwise keep up with. Text messaging conjures up conversations, 90% of which wouldn’t have happened under previous technologies but only on a one-to-one (national) basis. The new generation of social sites with libraries of photos of your friends, their friends and their friends’ friends generates a global intimacy that could go on and on. On Facebook I found myself in contact with friends after midnight about mundane things just because they were online. If I had texted it would have been seen as intrusive – and a telephone call completely over the top.
“On such sites you usually chat to people with whom you have a link. In virtual worlds such as Second Life you, or your avatar, can say Hi and talk with strangers. I have met people who, after saying Hi to strangers in virtual worlds, claim to do it more often in real life. Goodness knows what will be going on 10 years hence when global relationships come of age.”
I believe that sites like Facebook, that are rooted in geographically-based communities (like colleges) are more likely to produce real social capital, since there are higher chances that web relationships will jump the Net to real face-to-face (F2F) relationships. And the fact that you are more likely to bump into people with whom you have been communicating online, and the fact that open dyadic friendship are likely to close into triads, makes it more likely that users will behave civicly and in a trusting manner on such sites, which also promotes social relationships.
We hope that designers will proactively think about whether the site is optimized to make strong friendships that can be relied upon, and users will focus on what they can do to ensure that ‘friends’ truly are real friends or become them over time. We’ll all be stronger with if the average user or citizen has 10 real solid friends than 5000 MySpace friends.