[Air-l] Definitions of 'friend'
nbaym at ku.edu
Sun Sep 10 14:45:01 PDT 2006
I've also been thinking about the meanings of 'friend' in social
networking contexts and appreciate danah's and Barry's insights into
the issue. To return to last.fm, one of the changes they introduced
over the summer was going from a system where you could 'friend'
someone without their 'friending' you to a system where friending had
to be mutual. Some derided this as the further MySpacification of
last.fm, but, to my surprise, most seemed not to care.
Aside from the lack of reaction from last.fm users, what I thought
was interesting was:
(1) the ability of developers to make a unilateral decision about
what 'friendship' should mean after another system had already been
in place for some time. This gets back to the questions raised by
forming social networks in proprietary spaces.
(2) the social network information lost to the community as a whole
when friendships must be mutual. For instance, it is no longer
possible to see that People X, Y and Z all think Person J is a great
source of new music tips unless Person J has accepted all of their
friendship requests, so if J is a much-admired discerner of good
music that provides stickiness for the site yet does not want to
collect friends, the information about J's value is lost where before
it was visible. This seems to work against the site's best interests.
They are now working on a bookmarking feature to replace one-way
friendship, but it is not clear if those bookmarks will be visible to
others, let alone aggregated in any way to figure out who are the
While many social networking sites seem to operate just fine with
only allowing mutual friending, I would think it would be better for
site stickiness to discern the kinds of links that danah notes
'friendships' may actually represent and build in ways to make that
information visible rather than narrowing an already vague category
into something more restrictive and no definitionally clearer. As
Barry notes, there are many kinds of valuable interpersonal
connection, and one term does not begin to do them justice.
Putting together my syllabus for a course in Communication
Technologies and Personal Relationships this semester, I was
surprised to see little if any published research taking on the
question of what people mean when they label someone a 'friend' on a
social networking site or the concerns that label raises for people
(for instance, one objection to the Facebook minifeed was that if one
were 'defriended' it would be visible to all as public rejection,
while for the defriender, rejection may have had nothing to do with
it). If anyone is aware of research into this, I would appreciate
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