November 10, 2005

Anti-Social Networking: The Commodity of "friend"ship


I must admit that I am not a very social person. I normally have one or two close friends that I talk to daily and I rarely talk to other people. Earlier in the semester I chose to join Facebook for a project. This choice reminded me of the reasons that I despise social networking services. Within days of signing up for Facebook, I had friends from high school and random people from here at Earlham begging to add me to their friend lists. On top of all the annoyance of people scrambling over each other to add you as another notch in their belt of friends, these services exploit people’s urges to socialize to collect information and promote a lack of privacy.

Need to make friends? It’s easy — just click!

Before Social networks, like Flickr, Friendster, Myspace, Orkut, Facebook, and many others, people had to make friends the old fashioned way, i.e., you had to go out and see your friends (or call them on the phone). A friend, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a person that you know well and regard with trust and affection. Social networks use the term friend very loosely. The term “friend” gets thrown around very casually in social networks; a friend could be anyone, from someone that you just met, to a person who you talk with daily both offline and online. Social networks are driven by people looking for old and new friends, a new job, romance, or just to be part of a group. Part of the philosophy of social networks is based on the principle of “Six degrees of separation,” (from the John Guare play) where everyone on the planet is within six friends of friends from everyone else1. Social Networks connect people to friends of friends.

Currently social networks are very popular, around 1 in 4 people in the United States has seen, used or been invited to use a piece of social software in the past year9. Many of the services require that you be invited to join by someone, or give the option for you to invite your friends. While these social nets open you up to finding new people, and show your connections between friends, they can also be annoying by hassling you to join, putting you into uncomfortable situations, and showing your personal information.

The commodity of friendship on the Internet

Because social networking sites are run to meet people, there is a constant flow of invitations going to new people to join the network and to friends to verify friendship. This can cause some problems considering the number of people already belonging to the site and that everyone is connected, the amount of spam could easily become cumbersome quickly. Leander Kahney of Wired, says that people are getting “sick of invitations to join networking services, and the constant nagging to validate friends or acquaintances.”… “Some people are turning against the ever-growing social networking services.”4
Friendster recently sent out a massive email to people that had not responded to previous invites from friends to try and draw more people to the site. This caused a backlash from some of the web community, criticizing Friendster for sending spam8.
Criticisms of social networking sties like Friendster is seen in parody sites like Introvertster. “Introvertster is an online anti-social non-networking community that prevents people from ever bothering you while you’re online.”3

Gotta Catch Them All!

Friendships are built on shared experiences and trust. With social networks, friendships are broken down to the simplest terms. Instead of being based on trust and experiences, friendships in social networks are engaged in for less pure purposes. Instead of quality friendships, services like Friendster, are all about collecting the most friends.
Many people have a goal to gain friends when they join a social network, but there are a few people that have goals to get the most friends, or to reach a certain number of friends. Marc Canter is one of the latter. He attempted to be the “most friendly man in cyberspace.”5 Jim Louderback terms Canter as an Orkut slut7. Marc (at the time of this article, June 2004) had 124 friends on Friendster, on 444, and 749 on Orkut5.
Taking examples from our CS class members on Facebook, the numbers vary. I only have five friends on Facebook, yet I am connected to 58 people through friends. The other class members have between 18 and 100 friends, with the average being 53.
I am sure that some of those people on their friends list are people that they do not know very well or at all. The competitive drive to gather as many friends as possible can lead to many awkward situations.

Uncomfortable situations

When you are asked to be a friend by someone you don’t know it’s hard to decide what you are going to do. Some people instead of bothering with questioning the reason they are invited, accept the stranger as a friend. Others reject the petitioner automatically if they do not know who it is. Jim Louderback rejects potential friends, not because he does not want friends, but because he prefers becoming acquainted the old fashioned way first7. This is a very reasonable response to the “friend” collectors out there. Still some of the people that reject applicants for friendship sometimes feel guilty for rejecting people.
Derek Featherstone has termed the awkwardness of making friends “contact Flickritis” in a humorous fake diagnosis of Social Networking Diseases and Disorders of the new Millennium2.

Contact Flickritis
Symptoms: general uneasiness, sometimes accompanied by mild headaches and sweaty palms; often characterized by feelings of deja vu and that feeling you get when you meet up with someone you think you know but can’t remember their names.
Typical Causes:
1. contact A adds contact B to their flickr contacts, and contact B chooses not to reciprocate; contact A questions self-worth, wonders if they did something wrong or to piss contact B off.
2. contact A adds contact B as a “friend” in their flickr contacts; contact B displays symptoms while struggling to decide to add contact A as a “contact” or “friend”
3. contact A adds contact B to flickr contacts, contact B doesn’t login to flickr to see incoming messages and is oblivious that they have been added; often misdiagnosed as case 1, above”

Classifying friends

Because of the vast size of people’s lists and to tell other people about your friends, most networks like Orkut, have a way for people to rate their friends. On Orkut people can rate their friends, using smiley faces, ice cubes, and hearts, which stand for trustworthiness, coolness, and sexiness6. You can also indicate how close you are to those on your list, from “never met” to “best friend.”1 As Canter says, “reducing friendship to a click on a yes/no button is a complete joke.”5 There are a lot more ways to see friends than as “trustworthy, cool, and sexy.” To try and define most friendships based on those terms is ridiculous.

Quality of Friendship

With social networks it is possible to have very large numbers of friends. But does quantity equal quality? I doubt it is possible to have a significant relationship with a large group of people. Social networks cheapen friendship, turning it into a commodity, to be collected not valued for anything other a number or a means to get in contact with someone else. Andrew Zolli said, “By making our associations visible, such sites imbue our connections with an extra dimension of status, and shortly thereafter, competition. As people move from creating to collecting online “friends,” the value of individual relationships can be diminished.”9 In some cases the network of friends doesn’t really benefit the user. Why would you need to join Friendster if you weren’t single and didn’t need a job?
The quality of the friends that you ultimately make on the Internet will vary (like your friendships outside of the net). There will be some people that you never talk to again, and some that you talk to daily. A friendship across the Internet takes a lot of work. If you have 500 friends chances are that you aren’t “friends” with all of them.

Social networks are designed to bring people together and they do that successfully. People meet, find dates, make friends, and find employers through social networks. The term friend really shouldn’t be used to describe buddies on the Internet. The term implies more of an emotional bond and connection than most people have with people they meet on the Internet. Social networks are eroding the values placed on friendship by turning friends into commodities. The importance of friends of friends is to connect people, but it is used and exploited by some for personal gain. In the end what you get out of social networks is the ego boost of having “friends” and the potential to communicate and interact with them without most of the commitments and responsibilities of a friendship outside of the Internet.

Works Cited

1 Baig, E. (2004) Friends of your friends can be there for you online Personal Tech column; USAToday.

2 Featherstone, D. (2005, Aug. 31) Social Networking Diseases and Disorders of the new Millennium.

3 Introvertster 2003

4 Kahney, L. (2004, Jan. 28) Social Nets Not Making Friends Wired News.

5 Leonard, A. (2004) You are who you know.

6 Lichtenstein, J. (2004) THE REAL ORKUT The New Yorker.

7 Louderback, J. (2004) Too Many Fake Friends

8 Olsen S. (2005, Nov.10) Friendster overture not endearing to all CNET

9 Zolli, A. (2004, Sept 1), Socialize This! Demographics

Posted by brickte at November 10, 2005 11:28 PM | TrackBack
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