Social networking began when we first started to be able to list our friends on our favourite websites, and thus be able to separate them from the mass of strangers on the site. However, as many people have commented, the idea of having friends is a very contrived and limited way of managing our relationships. A five year old might ask “are you my friend, or not?!” and demand an instant answer one way or the other, but generally adults prefer something a little less black and white. I’ve read many articles complaining of this issue, in particular Corey Doctorow’s article at information week has gotten me thinking about this problem today.
A situation where we must answer either “yes” or “no” to the question “are you my friend?” is what we might call a binary relationship. If we think that this isn’t always ideal, then it seems like we need to explore ways in which we can model relationships which have more than two possible states.
A number of sites, live journal springs to mind, allow you to specify that a relationship belongs to a certain group which is distinct and separate from other relationships you might maintain. For example, on live journal, I could create a friendship group called “enemies”, and send out a post just to those people. At best, this system can elevate our relationships from binary to discrete, that is, having a number of possible states that is greater than two, but is still a finite whole number. I think that this is a good thing, but it tends to fall down a little when the things that you can do with such relationships are basically the same for all groups. If the point of friendship in a social network is to show people more information about yourself, shouldn’t an enemies group allow me to show that person less information than a stranger?
An important aspect of social networking relationships is how they are perceived by the users. Even if the relationship has no actual affect on the ability of those two users to interact on the website, it has a psychological affect. If you say “no” to my friendship request, then I may well feel rejected, despite the fact that a “yes” would have had no real effect.
Likewise, the effects of relationships on a website could be controlled without using friendships at all. Instead, we could simply have a raft of individual settings for each user, specifying which bits of our data they can see, or which interaction methods they are allowed to bug us with. One major disadvantage of such a system would be it’s time consuming complexity, but certainly some per person configuration could be a great benefit.
Since the social pressures of saying “yes” or “no” to friendship requests only apply to the obvious representation of the relationship, rather than to the functionality that it drives, then I think an important goal is to start by making that representation a bit “fuzzier”, and a lot less binary. Even if we do nothing more, and in fact the interactions in our network are still very much based on binary choices, simply being able to represent our relationships organically will help people feel less pressured into choosing the lesser of two ill fitting evils for each person.
An example of this is doing away with the word “friend”, and allowing users to build their own taxonomy. I always liked the way that audioscrobbler (now last.fm) let you specify relationships with a word or phrase of your choosing, and explained the system purely by putting your phrase in a sentence.
For example, a friend creation form might read “Craig [TEXT BOX GOES HERE] with Frank”. This feature on audioscrobbler was particularly freeform because the site didn’t even suggest contrived answers. Rather, it’s auto-suggest text box suggested popular answers, and reading them was quite amusing. Rather than “Craig is friends with Frank”, it became much more common to see “Craig frequents a local pub with Frank”, or “Craig fights ninjas with Frank”.
I freely admit that this only gives the illusion of non-binary relationships, and I’ve been experimenting a bit with more radical ideas. It seems that a totally different approach might be to stop asking users who they are friends with, and start trying to compute it quantitatively.
On Playful Bent, I’m experimenting with such a system in conjunction with a more normal binary friendship system (which also uses the strategies mentioned above). Since a lot of information on this particular site is public, the users have plenty of chances to try and interact without being friends. By watching what they do, and making a note of it automatically each time two users do something together, I can build up a rough “interaction score” between two users.
Measuring this stuff wasn’t actually too hard, but communicating it to the users is another story. I try and do so graphically, with big green ticks for each interaction. When there were only a few types of interactions, it was much easier to present the things to do on the site as something of a checklist. As the site gets more complex. the users begin to lose track of the reason why they might have a number of ticks with a person. As such, perhaps the “ticks” metaphor falls down a bit as a way of explaining the system, but certainly an interaction score still has merit.
I allow certain interaction score values to unlock certain types of interactions. For example, two ticks are needed to be able to private message another user. However, it really remains to be seen if users trust such a system enough to do things like make certain photos available only to people with an interaction score (with them) of more than eight, or in other ways stake their privacy on the system. I think the system looks promising though, and I’d like to push it further where possible. I’m even considering leaning a bit more heavily on this system, rather than on the binary friendships which are also on the site, to really drive it home to users that there are certain people that they interact with a lot, and maybe these are their “real” friends on the site.
I’d love to hear about what other people are doing in this area. It’s all very well to bitch about how friendships work on facebook and myspace, but coming up with some new ideas is much more fun.