What’s in a name?


As my attachment to online social networking sites (Facebook in particular) grows, my nitpicking about them seems to deepen. I’d like far too much control, in the form of having several different levels of “friends”, complicated veils of privacy control, and to do a bit more with the messaging options.

First of all, it’s incredibly difficult to choose which service to go for, because of the levels of complexity involved. Essentially what these sites are purporting to do is represent and mediate your entire social life, so this is no small task. Inevitably, many of us just join them all (see Anil Dash’s hilarious “Thanks for the Add!” post that underscores how far you can take this). Not only is this labour-intensive, however, it is also mostly a waste of time. Or, as Anil put it: “Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is stupid. […] hoping people manually recreate these networks over and over isn’t just an annoyance for really geeky people like me; It also acts as a barrier to people creating new, useful services, because it’s just cruel to ask people to clear this social networking hurdle yet again.”

However, let’s just say you are not as geeky as Anil Dash is (or as I am), and you only belong to one service. Let’s also pretend it’s paradise: everyone in the world is signed up to it and so you don’t need to send those pesky emails convincing friends to sign up. The next issue you face is that the whole thing is just too binary – someone is your friend, or they aren’t. Someone is in your “network”, or they aren’t.

I recently joined (and promptly let fester) an account at a new community/sharing/etc site called Pownce. In one of the shared conversations, Matt Jones had this to say about the binary relationships proposed by this type of site:

“I know I’m biased but I wish people would just ditch/rethink so much of the default language around YASNSs, e.g. Pownce’s “Fan, Friend, ‘you denied friendship’. It’s so autistic. My preference is to describe what is happening to the information, not your relationships e.g. ‘share messages with X’… A return to cybernetics, my “friends””.

Matt’s point is underscored by the trauma induced by refusing a “friend” request that Joshua Schachter describes:

“…since these systems make implicit relationship information explicit, deleting someone becomes a loud signal. In real life you would merely back off a bit, but the systems only allow you to express a binary sort of relationship.”

top friends
So, what to do? Something like the Facebook application Top Friends (picture above) is really the lowest kind of hack. Besides being rather Grade-Five-schoolyard in its approach, it’s a bit odd that an external application has to do the work of helping you to make these subtle (or not-so-subtle) shades of grey between friends. This kind of functionality should exist in the applications themselves, as they currently stand. Otherwise, no single one of them will stand out enough to truly save us from a list of site subscriptions as long as Anil Dash’s.

(Though OpenSocial looks to change a few things about how these sites might be used in the future…)

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