Monday, September 11, 2006

Friendships aren't binary

I feel old. Partially because social networks separate me from friends that are merely two years younger. I am part of the 'Friendster' generation. I was able to sign up for that, before the meteoric rise of 'MySpace', and 'Facebook'. I ignored MySpace invitations, writing it off as 'nothing special' (I also thought that Britney Spears was going to be a one-hit wonder), and by the time facebook rolled around, I had already left graduate school.

While I'm excited about social network applications, my opinion of social network apps was that they didn't actually DO anything. Beyond the novelty of being able to see my network, trouncing about the network didn't actually let me get anything DONE. No wonder why people called them the biggest waste of time. Perhaps, like bad TV, it was just a reaction to a guilty pleasure.

However, it was recently that I was able to sign on to Facebook, because I found that there is an alumni web mail service that I was able to utilize. I liked the Facebook interface immediately. Unlike friendster, it was clean, and it was fast. It didn't feel cluttered at all.

On the friends page, it would tell you that a profile was updated, and yet, I didn't know what. So I never really browsed, knowing that I won't want to spend time trying to find it. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the mini-news feeds: now I knew exactly what was updated, so I don't have to look around for it.

Here, I was able to see what my network was doing. What groups they were joining, what messages they were posting. Perhaps here-in lies the utility of a social network; an individual would know what's going on with his or her friends. The flipside of this feature was that most people felt like their privacy was invaded.

It's odd, because I, as a newcomer, didn't have much expectations of how things worked, so I more readily accepted the mini-news feeds. Therefore, I wonder if facebook had this feature in the beginning, would there be as much of a protest? Perhaps it would have had slower growth?

I think the assumption that facebook developers had was that
  1. users wouldn't mind that their friends knew what they were up to because of #2
  2. everyone named as friends were trusted
  3. all friendships are created equal
In reality, often times, the people in your friendship list might not be friends, but contacts, or campers. And even if the only people that you accepted were friend friends, not all friends are created equal. I think it's safe to say we all have aspects of ourselves that we show in front of some friends but not others. I remember I had friends in college that did weed or drank a ton, but they never invited me out with them to do it.

Given that, I can definitely see how they went ahead and did it. And often times, as a developer, if you don't simplify things, you'll never get anything done.

One, facebook's reaction to the backlash was a pretty good one, in my opinion. They put out a major announcement, as well as give one-click options to remove it by choice within two days. I applaud them for it. However, they managed to keep things simple. Choice can easily come with its strange bedfellow, complexity.

Second, perhaps, the model for naming friends should be changed. Perhaps it shouldn't be activated by individuals, but rather, inferred through activities. Then, you can be able to tell between active friends, and long lost friends. You would also be able to tell the context of the relationship, as well as which domain it falls under. Then perhaps, privacy would be less of an issue with a selected multicast of information, such as photos, who I'm dating, and where I'm going.

Wilhem has built Annologger, a tool that lets people worship your dentist appointments.

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