Dear Social Networks: I'll Decide Who My Friends Are

from the cheapening-the-'friend'-label dept

There’s already been a court ruling noting that being a Facebook friend is not like being a “real” friend, but the vast “cheapening” of the concept of friendship is ticking some people off. In noting how the various social networks keep encouraging you to add more friends (even if they’re not real friends), it raises questions about whether or not these social networks are hurting their own reason for being. As businesses, they have every reason to encourage you to keep adding friends. However, if you so cheapen your relationships by adding anyone and everyone as a friend, doesn’t it make the services a lot less useful for really keeping up with your friends? Perhaps social networks that are really about managing your relationship with real friends would be better off focusing on the quality of communication between friends, rather than the quantity of friends you have.

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Comments on “Dear Social Networks: I'll Decide Who My Friends Are”

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PaulT (profile) says:

This is what I already do, and I’m always mystified as to why people use Facebook as the example for these stories.

I have around 120 friends on Facebook at the moment. I do not have a single Facebook friend who I don’t know in real life. Some are people I know from my current workplace and neighbourhood, and I use Facebook to help organise weekend plans, etc. Others are friends from school, people I’ve met throughout my life since and family. I use Facebook to keep in touch with them, which is very handy – they are spread across 4 continents. I have used Facebook to get back in touch with, and ultimately meet up in real life with, people I may not have regained contact with through “normal” means.

Yes, there are people who try to get as many “friends” as possible, who try to one-up other people with numbers, but these are usually idiotic teenagers. If anything’s “cheapening” these services, it’s reports like this that assume that these are the only people using them.

vendetta says:

Re: Re: Re:

Agree with some old guy, I have 180 people on my friends list and I would only consider 5 of them as good friends. How could you even maintain an active friendship with over 100 people? Hell, with work and school I have a hard time trying to make time for my 5 good friends!

For the most part it seems that this is the new way for a kid to display themselves as “popular”. Instead of having that image in school, it can now be displayed on facebook and myspace as “i have more friends that you so people like me more!”…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Fallacy: because you can’t do it, no one can. It’s possible that someone has such social energy, or such enmeshed groups or tight connections that they *can* maintain active friendships with over 100 people.

Anyways, as noted, it depends on what you consider ‘friends.’ Do you measure it in time spent in physical proximity? Or in character-count of emails? Maybe frequency of interactions? I’m certainly not better friends with my boss than I am with my old college roommate.

Iron Chef says:

Re: Re: Re:

You are confused if you actually think you have 120 friends.

Sure, you may have 120 acquaintances… but 120 friends? ya, right.

Agreed. That is a high of a number! But to support PaulT, Anthropologist Robin Dunbar created “Dunbar’s number” in 1992. His theory states that that a person’s mean group size for a community is 148, and is based on the size of the human neocortex.

Sure, I believe that a person has subsets of people within that group- some relationships being “closer”, or multidementional than others. As the number goes down, it is theorized that the relationships become “closer”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Semantics… I’d consider an acquaintance someone who I’ve never really gotten to know. I probably have around 100 people that I’d consider a friend on some level.

As for keeping up, that’s really what I thought the point of these kind of sites were… not to build “popularity” but to use it to communicate.

If something eventful happens in life, these sites are a great tool to communicate to those that you don’t necessarily communicate on a regular basis with. I personally have no problem with someone I worked closely with 5 years ago dropping a note that they had a kid and posting pictures.

On the other hand, of course I don’t have 100 close friends that I talk to daily, weekly or even monthly. It doesn’t mean we don’t share a certain level of friendship.

Alimas says:

Its just a game.

I use the telephone and IMs as a vastly far more efficient way to keep up/plan with friends.

I use MySpace to play games, do quizzes when I’m bored, browse profiles when I’m bored and hold pictures for me to show folks.

I mean, its much less an effective tool for communication than it is an internet toy and so thats how most people use it. Like getting a high friend count.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Its just a game.

Depends on who you are and where your friends are.

I have a very good friend who’s just moved to Canada, another friend moved to Australia. I myself have moved from the UK to Spain, and have family in the US, Hong Kong, Uganda, South Africa and Costa Rica so it’s a hell of a lot easier (and cheaper) to keep in touch with friends and family through Facebook. On top of that, by using this “toy”, I managed to get in back touch with old school I hadn’t seen or heard from in 10 years.

So my life has been enriched and my contact with family and friends is much easier and cheaper than by phone. Don’t assume that a high friend count is all that matter with these things – to dumb kids, yes, but not to everyone.

Hua Fang (user link) says:

Re: call it "iFriend"

By the way, they should have another option labeled “iEnemy” next to “iFriend”. In that way, the definition of a certain iFriend will be clarified. For example, I would like to be iEnemy on the list of some network sites who is promoting the ideas and believes against mine, such as “AIDS is not caused by HIV” etc.
… …
Anyway, just another little pitch on the definition of friend and its usage on the internet of future.

Roger (user link) says:

Oversimplifying friendship

The concept of “friends” on a social network (SN) is different to the concept of real-life friends. For one thing, we expect in-person interaction with real-life friends, at least to a degree unlikely or not possible with SN friends. For another, our emotional commitment to real-life friends may be more than it would be to SN friends we’d never met (or meet).

Yes, there is some overlap. Some of our SN friends will be real-life friends, but there’s no reason it has to be that way. To argue that a SN “cheapens” the concept of friendship is a gross oversimplification since it assumes a monolithic, one dimensional definition of friendship. Without descending into a semantic debate, it is clear that the burgeoning of online relationships through social networks will necessitate redefining what friendship means. Now that’s going to be complicated!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Oversimplifying friendship

I agree with your main points, but I think it’s wrong-headed (or at least stuck in the past) to assume that ‘friend’ requires physical proximity, or that one would necessarily have less emotional investment in someone they’d never “met” (defined as interacting withing physical proximity).

I have a reasonable handful of friends who I met through web forums before this whole “social networking” phenomenon was a gleam in anyone’s eye. And I consider them as true of friends as any of my ‘real’ friends — we’ve had discussions, shared advice and experiences, and made an honest connection with each other. Most of what constitutes real friendship is intelletual anyways, and physical proximity is only necessary as a medium for that interaction. Would you consider a penpal “not a real friend” just because you never stood within 5 feet of each other, even if you’d corresponded for a decade and watch each other’s lives develop?

Ian L says:

Overfriending leads to poor monetization

This post says it’s always in social networks’ best interests to encourage “overfriending.” But marketers only care about social networks because they represent a new channel to reach buyers. If people don’t truly care about the opinions of the “friends” they add, then those “friends” really won’t providing marketers with an effective channel to reach buyers. When they won’t see the recommendation-driven traffic purported they will sour on the channel. With this in mind, perhaps social networks do not benefit from overfriending at all.

Anonymous Coward says:


Why does it have to be really good friends that you add? I don’t understand this concept – I add people that I know – I don’t neccessarily correspond with them most of the time, but when one gets married or gets a new job, I hear about it. I like to know what’s going on with people that I’ve known in more than just a passing way, even if it’s not anymore. So yea, I have 100’s of people on facebook/myspace combined – but I don’t always keep in touch with all them. You know what I mean?

Anonymous Coward says:


I love when some boob tries to tell people how many friends they have or “how much social energy” they have.

As with all relationships it takes both parties to “determine” what they are. If my buddy in China considers me his friend and I consider him my friend, then we’re friends regardless if we don’t live up to your standards of friendship. Maybe you’re just high maintenance? More than likely though, you’re just a bitter tard with very few friends.

Jeff (profile) says:

How Many?

I currently have something on the level of 140 “friends” in facebook.

1 of those is an acquaintance I’ve never met, and only corresponded with a couple of times.

4 of those are people I ran an online radio station with several years ago, I’ve never met them in person, but I’ve spent many, many hours talking with them over VoIP, DJ’ing shows and generally hanging out. True friends, though I’ve never met them.

About 40 of those “friends” are family members that I’m close to. Cousins, 2nd cousins, uncles, aunts, brother, sisters etc. I’d guess those count as friends.

2 of those are co-workers who are friends.

About 7 – 10 are friends I regularly see in my small town. We play poker together, hang out, and are very real, close friends.

About 5 are very close friends who have moved away. Facebook is how we keep in contact, in combination with phones, letters and cards.

About 5 more are spouses of the above friends.

That totals 66 friends and one acquaintance. Every other person on my friends list is someone I’ve had a fairly close friendship with over the years and still keep in contact with through facebook. We call each other occasionally, share jokes, send emails, let each other know what is going on in our lives – but we’re not “particular” friends, if the meaning is clear, but we’re certainly more than “acquaintances”.

I don’t understand how it would be so hard to believe someone could have 120, 140, or even more friends, that they keep in touch with through a social networking site.

Add to the fact that I’ve got 2 children, one of them brand new, so I don’t have much in the way of a social life. When I was in high school I regularly hung out with at least that number of people, other times of my life have been more or less, but I think it’s asinine to suggest that simply because you can only maintain friendships with a very limited number of people yourself, that the same must be true for every other person.

Computer Consulting Kit Home Study Course (user link) says:

personal and professional social networking?

I think also as professional networking becomes more of a part of a lot of these social networking sites, not randomly adding people you know is going to become a lot more important if you want the site to serve a “legitimate” purpose for you. If your purpose is to connect to people that might provide professional opportunities, wouldn’t you want to make sure everyone in your network is someone you know and trust or at least that you know to be trustworthy? I think on a personal, social level, many people feel pressured to add more friends they don’t know; because for whatever reason there’s a higher status attached to “collecting” large groups of “friends,” (virtual friends, that is) whether you know the people or not. But, it seems that if Facebook and other social networking sites want to be more legitimate services for both personal but especially for professional purposes, they would stop encouraging random friend adding and start paying closer attention to weeding out the ads, spam and fake profiles that abound.

Ryan says:

I think Masnick is missing part of the point

Trying to pigeon hole the function of what a facebook friend is or should be based upon RL friends’ roles is problematic. I seriously doubt that individual users are going to confuse who their “good” friends are with long lost acquaintances. These sites are called networking sites for a reason. They allow their users to maintain contact with large amounts of only vaguely familiar people; this is impossible to do in RL. Though facebook may dub them “friends” I would put my money on people not conceiving of them in the same way they do as people they associate with on a more frequent basis.

Jake says:

Social Networks change your concept of "friend"...

So I guess I didn’t win you over with my “Twitter enables the long tail of social interactions.” concept, eh Mike? To equate Social Networks with the historical concepts of friends is a bit specious in my mind. I think the reason why many people use them is to expand their circle of people they consider friends. Previously, there was a lot of friction in the process of “maintaining” a friendship. Social Networks reduce that friction and allow for expansion of people you can have a relationship with. Is the relationship the same? No. The communications and interactions are different, so I agree that the nature of the friendship is different. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in these relationships. Just as Internet eCommerce allows for the exploitation of smaller interest pools, so Social Networks allow for the maintenance of lower bandwidth friendships.
All that being said, are there people overdoing it? Absolutely. The first and second generations of SNS’ probably biased their systems too much towards friend acquisition/network growth. The next stage will require some mechanisms that “trim the hedges” of our social network to the appropriate level. It will be interesting to watch as SNSers struggle with where to set this new bar. (user link) says:


I don’t understand what they mean by encouraging you to have as many friends as possible? I don’t feel pressured to have “fake” friends on my social network accounts. I only let people that I really care about in. That isn’t to say I don’t have a non-personal account that I use for business advertisement. There I add anyone who will listen. But, what incentives are provided by the network comapanies for having more friends. The only people I see that care are the ones that look at your friend count… “OOHHH, you have 50,000 friends… you are SOOO COOL!!”


Rosemary (user link) says:

how I decide on social network friends

My “friend” rule is this: You must have at least two meaningful conversations with me. (more than just hi-how-r-ya) Something where we can make a connection and we remember each other. Ideally face to face but not necessarily. About the only person in my Facebook friends who does not fit this rule is the radio guy I wake up to every morning.

I tend to join everything going but participate selectively as I see the benefit. I gave up on Yuwie because I was turned off by the whole “add as many strangers as possible” attitude. I also have roughly segmented my networks into “business” (eg. LinkedIn) and “pleasure” (Facebook). yes there is crossover.

oregonnerd says:

Social Networking

Let’s not forget that “Social Networking” actually just means having a relationship or relationships through society. As currently used as catchword, what it means is relating to others by means of technology, mainly the Internet (it’s perfectly valid for LANs) and as such incorporates the idea of only a partial relationship–text messages, phone calls, maybe even Internet sessions with web-camera; reality ain’t there. Whatever reality is. See John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar (it was either that or The Sheep Look Up…).

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