[Air-l] Definitions of 'friend'

Nancy Baym 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 
stickiest people.

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 


More information about the Air-L mailing list