Monday, March 23, 2009
How Do You Value an Online Friendship?
The advantage to having connections (friends) within online social networks includes getting to know some of their connections as well. In order to expand your circle of friends you often rely on introductions to others through those who are connected to you. In this way, you are able to not only meet new people who may have similar interests to your own, but also to connect to those with whom you have lost touch.
In a satirical article written in the February issue of Time titled “Why Facebook is for Fogeys”, Lev Grossman lists the number one reason as being “finding people you've lost track of”. His major point being that the schools, jobs and close relationships we’ve had all “came with a complete cast of characters, most of whom we have forgotten existed. But Facebook never forgets”. This suggests that friendship is something that can be collected over time like souvenirs, and now it can be easily mapped as well. We can visualize in the abstract how our locus of identity might look in two and three dimensions.
Because we have labeled a connection a “friend” and a connection to them a “friend of a friend”, we are now able to create models that can visualize those relationships. With names like Entourage (Facebook) and Friends at a Glance (MySpace) you can assemble thumbnail images of all of the people in your network and see them at once. Like a company picnic, a reunion or a family gathering, you can line up their faces (or icons) row after row, and do so at your command.
For more complex relationships, Friend Wheel (Facebook) will cross link and show the more complex embedded relationships. These are not representations of the traditional view of what friends, family and relationships mean, but rather an organization of data that representations other stored data associated with people that you know. And yet, we give this data importance as how we see ourselves in relation to those who define us and the variety of social structures, organizations and cultures to which we belong.
When it comes to ending the relationship, the technically driven management of your personal connection offers a simple solution. Instead of avoiding the person or not accepting or returning their phone calls, you can simply “de-friend” them. You delete their status as friend and no more status reports, photo posts or commentaries are allowed to be directed toward you by the former friend. They are treated in absolute terms; in ones and zeros, in x’s and o’s, (or “exes” and o’s if you prefer). They were your friend and now they are not, at least by the web sites definition of that term. There are no awkward phone calls or conversations. They simply stop hearing from you. Just like in the real world, this does not stop them from asking you to be their friend again, but once again you control the acceptance of the invitation.
These examples related to friendships come from web sites that encourage you to post videos, rate and rank music likes and dislikes and throw virtual sheep at each other through game applications. The prominent instrumental value is measured in fun and socializing, staying connected through trivial asides and posting photos.
Other network sites concentrate more on the idea of business connections and the as their basic instrumental value. These sites emphasize what these business acquaintances/relationships can do for us and what we can do for them. LinkedIn and Konnects are two examples of these business related SNA’s. Evolving more from the concept of a Rolodex than a yearbook, profiles contain job titles, skill sets, company affiliation and project needs as published definitions of who we are in relation to others.
Konnects is targeted at business professionals who are looking to be a part of a larger community of interconnected groups, launched as a means to mimic conventional business networking. Linked In expressly states that it helps you create a network of trusted contacts that will give you a business advantage and accelerate your business success. This aligns more closely with the often quoted cliché that “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Each network allows for you to list your accomplishments, resumes and professional portfolios.
These sites do not try to redefine friendship so much as treat our relationships as business opportunities. An instrumental value to belonging to this type is more easily measured by business success, but does not have the wide reach that complex human relationships provide.
One common function these differing types of SNA’s share is the ability to follow someone around through their accomplishments, comments, postings and portfolios. Though in a business network this may be keeping current for business opportunities, in the more socially informal networks this can be exaggerated to a form of stalking. Privacy controls are put into place to limit how much information can be attained without an invitation into your social structure.
Beyond business and friendship, and as eluded to earlier, many individuals leave the real world and turn to the online world in search of a partner. Online relationships have stepped beyond friendship into life partnership, sometimes as the result of chance and often through a deliberate pursuit of a match. We have given ourselves over to the idea that finding someone who you can love and who will love you back can be accomplished by collecting data and comparing it to other pieces of volunteered information. And in many ways it has worked successfully in allowing bodies with similarly organized data to find each other.
In sites like Match.com, potential mates are screened and profiled and then matched based on religious background, economic goals and personal likes and dislikes. Even sites like Classmates.com, which was ostensibly set up to keep in touch with old school friends found its success based on people whose curiosity in regards to old flames drove them to join. Dating sites such as Match.com and eHarmony.com present opportunities to meet and engage in conversation with others, usually resulting in more personal encounters that include face to face meetings and real world dating opportunities.
However, other online matches are not made through systematic selection arranged by a back end database, but rather by online communications through email, text, chat and SNA’s. These are all available to users who are members of virtual communities. These complex social systems not only have relationship building features but come complete with manufactured environments with which to roam around, engage in business and create partnerships of various sizes.
Some are game like and are constructed with a set of conforming rules and regulations that must be followed in order to achieve a goal are atomistic in nature and do not allow for much agreed upon socially driven creations. Others are free-form worlds that provide a platform on which societies can build themselves, including structures, legislative bodies and overlapping organizations. These tend to be more communitarian and allow for deeper relationships to grow....
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