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August 02, 2007

Friendship?

In his first blog entry for Terranova, Social networking for whales, Roo Reynolds discusses the nature of inter-personal relationships in online social networks and virtual worlds - in short, what is a 'friend' in these kinds of spaces?

Two thoughts occur to me (hey, it must be a good day!)...

Firstly, whether 'have I ever bought this person a drink, or am I ever likely to?' is a good metric for accepting or rejecting offers of friendship in tools like Facebook?

Secondly, that my own experience indicates that Facebook and its ilk tend to bring together networks of people that already know each other in other ways, i.e. they act as re-enforcers of existing social networks by and large.  On the other hand virtual worlds like Second Life have a tendency to forge new (and real) relationships between people that haven't met in RL (and which might subsequently go on to become the basis of 'friendships' in other social tools).

Twitter, I think, has the ability to function more like the latter.  I'm not totally sure why but  I suspect that the highly synchronous nature of the social interaction in virtual worlds and Twitter has something to do with it.

Clearly, these thoughts are based on a sample of one - YMMV.

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"my own experience indicates that Facebook and its ilk tend to bring together networks of people that already know each other in other ways, i.e. they act as re-enforcers of existing social networks by and large. On the other hand virtual worlds like Second Life have a tendency to forge new (and real) relationships between people that haven't met in RL (and which might subsequently go on to become the basis of 'friendships' in other social tools)."

Great summary. I'd pretty much agree with you. Almost all my friends on, say, Facebook are real world friends. Equally, I've never physically met a good chunk of the people in, say, my Second Life friends list in the real world.. but I'd like to.

On the other hand, something like Twitter seems to straddle those two methods of networking: I follow a lot of people who I already know on Twitter, but also a good number of friends-of-friends - people I'd like to get to know better and with whom I may gradully build a bond. While it certainly feels likely that different tools have different conventions, and equally that different people will use them in different ways, I'm not so sure there's a strict division between virtual worlds being used primarily for meeting people and web tools being used primarily for staying in touch with people we already know. Again, sample size of one though. :-)

This chimes with something that keeps crossing my mind. On Facebook, nearly all my 'Friends' are people I know and have met (there is one exception, where I've only ever had online correspondence with the person, but this was well before Facebook).

I also recently joined the Ning network for Library 2.0, and immediately had all these people asking to be 'my friend' - since I didn't know any of them, I declined these invitations - but how on earth am I going to get to know any of them except by accepting their offer of friendship?

I've seen some posts (maybe here?) suggesting that we need some more fine grained categorisations of 'friendship' (and, to some extent Facebook offers this by allowing you to define your relationship to someone e.g. I worked with Fred at Acme Ltd.)

There is a piece in the Guardian this week (http://lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/privatelives/story/0,,2144766,00.html)
where the correspondent complains that he finds it difficult to make, and keep, friends. He asks "How does one rebuild a social existence from nothing, without going via routes that are awkwardly artificial?". This is how becoming 'friends' online with people I don't know feels to me. One reply says "I'm not sure what you mean by "awkwardly artificial", because almost any social situation could be construed as such" - perhaps this is the key - these sites just make the artificiality of the situation more explicit.

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