A Conglomeration of Relationships

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just so you all know that I’m not dead, I do have a post for you. Unfortunately for me, after taking a fair chunk of time writing this the past couple days, further research showed me that most of what I propose below is, in some way, already mostly a part of facebook’s profile privacy management. The problem is that facebook’s process for profile privacy management isn’t straightforward and could be much, much simpler with an easy re-design. So, all is definitely not lost with my post, as having a simple, satisfying, and useful user experience is still the name of the game. Also, because I realized my half-blunder after spending so much time already writing, I’m not going to proofread it very closely. ‘Tis what ’tis. Thank you and enjoy.

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According to facebook, I have 246 friends. This is one of the most ego-flattering, preposterous lies that’s ever been told about me. If I really stretched the limits outside of facebook, I might have 18 friends, 5-6 of which are close friends, and 2-3 that I would consider “best friends”. Instead, what I really have on facebook is a conglomeration of relationships, made up of family members, close friends, friends, acquaintances, old flames, co-workers, classmates, colleagues and one person I’ve never met nor talked to, yet I admire his writing, so I friended him and lucky for me, he accepted (It seems he accepts everyone. Oh, this is not a “fan page” either, it’s his actual profile.)

My situation is not unique. Actually, it’s the norm for facebook. This is a problem. You see, for most of these relationships, I don’t mind these friends seeing my life and catching up a bit—it’s like a constant reunion—but I don’t want all of them in my private life. Yet, I can’t control what my conglomorees can see, to the point that I’ve considered deleting my facebook account. (I know, I know, I’m addicted to facebook, I know. But hear me out.)

To their credit, facebook does offer some semblance of privacy from exposing yourself, especially with things like photos. Facebook gives control to the user through allowing the easy creation and management of friend groups. Facebook also has ways for you to control what gets published in your friends’ news feeds and has ways for you to tailor what you get in your news feed as well. Lastly, there are also ways to protect your information from non-friends and you can always choose to show a limited profile to someone. But no one, I mean no one, keeps someone out in the cold with the barebones limited profile.

Why we don’t keep potential “friends” at the limited profile view is, mostly, out of guilt. We don’t want to be mean, shafting someone who wants to see some recent pics of us, some pics of our family, etc. But the problem is that this makes you make a choice: Heed the friend request or not.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve been denied facebook friendship, although I’ve never denied one friend request. I’ve cringed when accepting a friend request and later “defriended” some people, but I realize this is a choice that I make, whether to allow these people so far into my life. And I know I could just not be on facebook or limit what I put up or really prune back the old conglomeration of relationships. But the problem is that I even have to consider doing any of these moves. Facebook is a free site that wants users, users, and more users because the more users and friends we all have, the more entrenched facebook becomes in our lives, making it a bigger fixture, making it nearly indispensable.

Not to mention, part of what makes it fun is the public forum-ness of the whole mess, the free voyeurism, the, well, socializing. Openness keeps facebook from becoming “clique-y”, your friendships egalitarian. Exclusivity is for private messages.

However, I’m here to say that facebook has reached a threshold, a critical mass of societal penetration where facebook can now shift to overdrive, to the next level in friendship control. The next level includes a simple, pre-designed, user-friendly solution to allow for different levels of conversation between friends: A group called “Inner Circle” and the others, simply “Friends”.

These distinctions are made by you, the user about whom you deem a close friend, and they apply to your status updates, your photos, posted items, live feeds, etc. You can choose your Inner Circle who you want to get specific updates from and if your friend has chosen you back for Inner Circle status, you get their specific updates. This allows conversation among close friends, weeding out old acquaintances, co-workers, and yes, family members.

There would still be regular status updates to all of your friends if you so choose, but having an extra layer to be able to communicate with a handful of friends without email and not having to worry about what you’re writing about or posting would be priceless. After all, I don’t mind if my “friends” see innocuous pictures of me with my family, but what I want is to be able to have the same user-friendly experience of socializing among my close friends as it currently is for everyone.

Having this type of control is, I believe, the key to the next level of facebook membership and site usage. I say this because those who are not on facebook often cite the lack of information control as one of their top reasons for not joining up. Sure, these non-facebookers don’t want to connect with all those old friends, but more so, they don’t want their laundry aired to the whole world. Further driving my proposition that allowing more communication control will drive facebook usage is that the current lack of control is one of the main reasons that current facebookers don’t use it more: Everything’s too public, too out there. And most people aren’t that exhibitionistic.

The bad news is that facebook probably will never change their current set-up. Why?

Facebook’s entire platform, its entire service, is based on openness, its egalitarianism. Being so open limits how much amount a user has to think or act while limiting the social stress of choosing who is part of your “Inner Circle” and who is just a “Friend”. They’re all friends. By making everyone equal, it shifts the stress and guilt of deciding who is a friend-worthy instead to a question of what is socially acceptable in a public forum. In other words, the facebook society is its own policeman: If you’re ashamed to post it, you shouldn’t be posting it. This is happy times for facebook.

Next, keeping the communication channels wide open keeps facebook from becoming “clique-y”. If you all of a sudden have 300 million users choosing not only what does or doesn’t get published but also to whom something gets published, then you create pockets of friends and possibly mute the very thing that makes facebook so fun: its sociability-ness, its sense of open voyeurism, if you will.

These are definitely problems. But facebook has all the tools to manage two levels of friendship and they have reached the critical mass where such tools wouldn’t stunt their growth, it might actually turbocharge it. After all, I would be inclined to post more updates if I knew that my colleagues, my Mom, and that girl from my 8th grade science class weren’t going to read it. But please don’t make me de-friend them.

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