De-frienders and De-friendees

January 17, 2009 § 4 Comments

Our Friend The AtomToday, I was on facebook looking through a friend’s friend list and saw a friend of mine whose profile I hadn’t checked out in a while. When I clicked on this friend’s name to see what was new on her profile, I got the pop-up window of the non-friend.

“Wait a second,” I thought. “We’re friends.”

And as my brain cranked through all the possibilities, I realized, “Holy crap, I’ve been de-friended.”

I’ve written about how many “friends” I have that I wouldn’t really consider a “friend”, more like an acquaintance or some other relationship, but this one hurt because this was a person that I actually, like, really like. I’ve known her since junior high and when I saw her on facebook, I was very happy. (Yes, a lot of modifiers in this paragraph. It’s for good reason, though: It’s very true.)

But something happened on the way to the cleaners. You see, she wrote on my wall when we first became friends, and I, in a move of obscene density, never wrote her back. So, I assume from here that this made her mad and she de-friended me.

F– that guy.

Yes. F– me.

It wasn’t just that she was offended by something that happened in a virtual environment, she also ended up sending me a message that she was angered by simply de-friending me. And so I ended up sending her an apology letter asking if we could be “friends” again. Seriously. Over facebook.

Over.

Facebook.

Thus, the crux:

To my new de-friend, me not replying was every bit as offensive as her having called me to say hello and never calling her back. Except, in some ways, not replying on facebook was worse. Why? Because facebook is even easier socially than making a phone call. Frankly, facebook lowers the bar for effort so low that when you don’t reply, people get really offended. And for good reason: It takes, what? 30 seconds of effort to write on a friend’s wall? And then all the profile information, photos, and everything else do the rest of the catching up for you. There’s no 45 minute conversation, awkward silences, or fumbled good-byes. There’s simply:

Hi, great to see you doing so well. We always had a good time hanging out and I have a lot of good memories of you. If you’re around, maybe we could get together some time? In the meantime, take care with everything, good luck with your son, and keep in touch.

So, yes: Even in the facebook world, relationships require a level of attention and care commensurate with the level of friendship you have in the 3-D world. In this way, the virtual world is merely a medium for real feelings. And just as in the 3-D world, the relationships are tricky because some relationships you care about and some you don’t, some need tending, some don’t, some friends just don’t like to be on facebook that much, and some refuse to be on it at all.

But it isn’t so hard to say hello and we must not forget this. And if you think it’s hard to say hello, think about how much harder it is to make up.

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.

——

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.

Slackonomics

August 25, 2008 § 1 Comment

I recently read the book Slackonomics by Lisa Chamberlain. The book covers the growing pains of Generation Xers, the tumult of the economy in the past 20 years, and Xers place in it.

For the first few chapters, I was thoroughly engaged as Ms. Chamberlain holds a mirror up to Generation X’s experiences socially, economically, and politically. It was an easy read and made me feel not so lonely on my somewhat unconventional professional and personal journey. But as the book went on, I found myself wondering aloud about what her ultimate point is. When she finally got there, she makes some interesting leaps, not all of which I am sure are completely founded by her set-up, but interesting nonetheless.

It goes like this:

• We are in an era of intense economic Creative Destruction (economic transformation through radical innovation), with Gen Xers leading the charge. This is good and shows our willingness to take risks and innovate. For example, think of Google, Amazon, iTunes, and countless other new companies and innovations.
• The free market is falling into Supercapitalism, which ultimately pits individuals’ needs against the common good (e.g. the worldwide plundering of natural resources; we shop at places like Wal-Mart yet complain about their low wages and union busting). This is bad.
• Far too few Gen Xers are engaged in the public marketplace that reconciles individual needs with the common good. This engagement is fundamental to a healthy democracy.
• If we don’t step up, we risk losing democracy. (For example: China’s Communist-Capitalistic Political-Economic structure shows that democracy and capitalism aren’t mutually dependent.)
• Fixing the situation isn’t going to be fun, but it’s necessary and Gen X has
all the tools to fix it.

These are some serious leaps of logic, obviously written by somebody who has read up quite extensively on economic and political theories—maybe even someone who takes them for granted. This creates the problem that Ms. Chamberlain doesn’t truly take the time to parse out her argument a bit more. Instead, she keeps the book fairly light content-wise (which has its merits), but if you’re going to tell me that democracy is buckling under the weight of capitalism, especially in such a grand fashion in the last chapter, I want some more information. Please.

In spite of these shortcomings, Slackonomics is a short enough read that you aren’t going to be heavily invested time-wise and the return of investment on that time is high. Which is nice. And it certainly made me wonder about design on the highest levels—government, power structures, leadership—which is also nice. But I would’ve gladly given a few more hours of my time for a little less mirror and a little more meat.

facebook: friend or foe?

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Last night, I went to a party where I saw some old friends from high school that had long since disappeared from my life. It was a lot of fun. And it was all due to facebook.

For someone my age (32), facebook has been a boon. I’ve reconnected with many people I’ve wondered about and can keep in touch with their lives going forward. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but after so many years without any contact, it’s been a great tool to reconnect.

But what about those who grow up with facebook? Those who live their whole lives always reconnecting? What is the value of disconnecting?

Having graduated from high school in 1994, it was very easy to get lost after high school. Those first few years, people largely went their separate ways, even if they didn’t move far away. After all, hardly anyone I knew had a cell phone and the Internet was a far, far cry from what it is today. So, for the vast majority of us, we completely lost touch with each other. And while part of that was unfortunate, it was also great. Having the ability to get lost was a way to break free, escape the judgment of the past, find your own path, and yes, find new friends that had no idea who your old friends were—or if you even had any.

This was something many people actually looked forward to—and some of us really needed. For instance, one of the people I saw last night I hadn’t seen since graduation. While I wondered where she was and how she was doing, she did exactly what she needed to do by disconnecting, by getting lost. And in that lostness, she seems to have found herself. Trite. Cliché. But true. And completely common.

So as I look out on a generation full of facebook users, I see the social world that enables disconnection dying a rapid death. In its place comes a world where online social utilities serve a constant reminder of who you were, of constant reconnection.

I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing or just another “thing” humans will adapt to. But I do wonder, what happens when we can’t get lost because we are always being found?

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