Does This Mean We’re Not Friends Anymore?

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If I thought you weren’t my friend, I just don’t think I could bear it.” (audio)

When I first signed up for LinkedIn, the initial volley of inbound invites was about what I expected. The requests for connections were from the anticipated audience of former colleagues, friends, and others I’ve worked with over the years. After the opening flurry, silence for a time.

Eventually, the flow of invites resumed. But as it did, the percentage of requests from strangers climbed steadily. Not, mind you, people I didn’t know well. Or people I’d never met in person. Or people I knew of but had never spoken with. These were, as far as I could tell, total strangers.

No obvious connections to me, RedMonk, the technologies and projects I cover, or any of my former employers or schools. Without giving it much thought, I accepted a few of these and forgot about it. After considering it later, however, I decided that this was a poor policy on my part, in that it would introduce noise into my information flow. And that was LinkedIn, a service I hear from perhaps monthly.

This pattern, with slight variations depending on implementation, has replayed itself in virtually every social networking-ish application I’ve signed up for from Facebook to Twitter. And it’s a mild concern.

Not for the most obvious reason: privacy. Which is good, because most of my information is public. If you’re really that interested, you can find out where I went to school (Facebook), where I’ve worked (LinkedIn), what music I listen to (Last.fm), what I’m reading (del.icio.us), what I like to take pictures of (Flickr), where I’m traveling (Dopplr) – even what I’m thinking about (Twitter). But it’s easy for me to relatively sanguine about that sort of declarative living, a.) because I was voted the “Least Likely to Attract a Stalker” at Mountain Lakes High School (don’t tell anyone about ThinGuy’s random Google visitor) and b.) because I manage the information on those services more carefully than might be obvious (try and find pictures of my friends, for example, on Flickr).

No, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me. What concerns me is rather what someone else might think if their subscription isn’t receiprocated, or worse, withdrawn.

When you unsubscribe from a Twitter contact, for example, the confirmation message is something like “[INSERT NAME] is no longer your friend.” [1] Ouch. The first time I saw that blunt system message, my immediate reaction was a horrified “man, I hope they don’t get an email saying that.” And of course they don’t, or at least I haven’t when folks have unsubscribed from my useless prattle.

As Joshua discusses, however, there is the flip side to the Twitter/et al “friend” coin. Namely, that not reciprocating a “friendship” can have a negative impact. Nor is this limited to software; in an article I regrettably seem to not have del.icio.us’d, one recent Zune buyer wrote of the emotional impact of having the carefully selected track he sent to a fellow Zune user rejected. Discarding a suggestion for a restaurant to eat at is one thing, music quite another – personal as it is for most of us.

Regrettably but unsurprisingly, I don’t have a magical solution for this issue other than to be very up front about who I’ll “friend” in this brave new (digital) world. To that end, here’s the deal: if we’ve interacted (email/IM/conference/phone/IRC/blogs/etc), I’m more than fine with invites. Happy about them, even. If we don’t know each other in any context, however, the value of a connection is minimal anyhow. Higher traffic channels like Twitter are a bit of a special case – I’m forced to be even more selective there lest the channel grow to crowded for me to track.

The good news is that the actual negative impact from trivial social networking rejections tends to be fairly slight. But eventually I think someone playing with less than a full deck will take it the wrong way and react badly. Which assumes, of course, that this hasn’t happened already. It’s just a matter of volume, and by extension, time. There are more requests coming from more channels every day, so the odds are ever more in favor of eventual unpleasantness.

But that’s different than life…how?

[1] I know they have the “Leave” button in there as a less final option, but I can’t see the point of that; if I don’t want to track them now, what’s the likelihood I would in the future? And why wouldn’t I just resubscribe in that case?


  1. When I was working at Xanga one of the projects I spent a lot of time on was the social-networking aspect of the site (http://profile.xanga.com/friends.aspx?user=Joel). We had long discussions about how to phrase the various actions that are part of a social network – do you ‘friend’ someone? do you connect with them? etc. Is it your ‘friends’ page or your ‘connections’ page or is it your network? Personally, I think saying “you are no longer connected to [user]” sounds a lot better than “you are no longer [user]’s friend” because much less of a judgement about that person is implied. Also, when declining invites we gave users the option to choose from humorous (“It’s not you, it’s me…”), more polite (“I’m sorry, I don’t know you well enough.”), or custom replies. On top of that, after X number of days the invite would silently expire and disappear, allowing you a way out if you really didn’t want to decline directly. The proliferation of social networks leads to a whole new class of social interaction and the norms are not yet well defined.

  2. One of the problems with most of these sites is their assumption that the strength of a link is binary. Take LinkedIN as an example, if you link with someone you are specifying a level of trust between the two entities. Of course in a business context there are varieties of trust and levels of connection. But LinkedIN provides no way to deal with this.

    You should be able to have multiple levels of connection. Of course that introduces the problem that we don’t obviously define a level of connection in our normal social interactions. Although it’s implied.

  3. […] A more general challenge I find with social media is the glib use of the word friend. Perhaps I’ve been living in Germany too long where the German equivalent is used sparingly, and the terms colleague and acquaintance don’t have the same pejorative sense that they can do in English. There are a number of people I would like to have in my network, but I’m not sure that I would classify them as friends (or they me!). Stephen O’Grady has a thoughtful post- “does this mean we are friends anymore?” […]

  4. […] comments around here are generally of greater value than my humble offerings. Witness Joel’s comment on the nuances of social networking, Bill’s comment on distributed source code management […]

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