Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Meaning of Online Friendship...

During this holiday season many of us take a few moments to be thankful for our family, our careers, and our friends - but just what that means is a bit problematic.

It's not exactly news that the standards for what constitutes our friends in real life are quite different than those determining our "friends" in cyberspace. Even the novice Facebook user shares in the experience of receiving a friend request from someone who was never more than a mild acquaintance, and usually accepting that request solely out of a sense of guilt. Other awkward situations increasingly abound. Teenagers more and more frequently have to decide whether to accept a friend request from their parents, inevitably facing more scrutiny about their "extracurricular" activities. Adults also are being forced into discriminating against whether they want their online presence to be centered around their careers and networking with business associates, or conversely to focus on cultivating a more family-centric presence. In other words, they either want to feel comfortable posting pictures from last week's out-of-control Christmas office party or else pictures of the grandkids, but seldom do they want to make all of those pictures visible to both worlds simultaneously.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is running a piece describing rising levels of anger people are feeling due to being "unfriended" on social-networking sites.

Indeed, use of the word "friend" as a verb - as in 'so-and-so just friended me' - has become just as socially acceptable as using the word "Google" as a verb - as in 'just Google it'. If ever there was a marker of the cultural value of something these days, that may be it.

In response to the Journal piece, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch chronicles how, for a time, Facebook really just wanted users to be online friends with people they already knew in the offline world. However, as that has evolved, the site has been pressured to add features that help users deal with the social stigma that comes with "unfriending" - either by creating different "buckets" (or levels) of friendship with corresponding levels of access to your content, or by creating "fake follows" so that you can pretend to follow certain "friends".

Arrington concludes by stating that, "there is no bright line of right and wrong when it comes to defining online friendship. The algorithms and the humans will meet somewhere in the middle." Unfortunately, this is a pretty wishy-washy statement that doesn't really add insight into anything. Defining online friendship is advancing beyond being simply a curiosity into truly being a problematic issue in terms of all of our social relations. And while social theorists play with their ideas, I'm left to struggle with a very real problem of whether to accept a friend request from a former schoolmate with whom I never had even more than a basic conversation. Let's just say that talking about algorithms isn't exactly helpful advice.


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