Friending and Following

Here at Teethie, we've done a lot of thinking about how to make sure each of the "connections" you make on Teethie is meaningful, and that you actually drive attention to those you claim to be interested.

I'm mystified and curious about the curious mechanics of friending and following. In the minds of technical people we seem to have developed mental models for "friending" (a symmetrical social tie) and following (a non-symmetrical social tie), but in what I observe, there seems to be little social distinction between these things. Perhaps much of this can be tied to many of these social services roots - the service Livejournal has been connected to both Zuckerberg (who can forget the movie scene of Zuck's drunken blogging?) and Twitter, with their friend/following model as an explicit source of inspiration. Regardless, Facebook's choice of the word "friend" with regard to the first social network most people see (and certainly the one where the majority of their time is spent) has created a complex social phenomenon. The important thing to note is that Facebook has built into this model the assumption that you are interested in your friends - that your friends are also those whose activities you will "follow."

I've never fully believed or bought into this assumption for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it assumes that people are relatively happy and fulfilled by their current social connections. I've often said that I see Facebook as a fundamentally "non-aspirational" product on the web, a space inundated by "aspirational" products. In this case, Facebook is not about who you wish you know, it's about who you already know. Facebook's algorithms for the Newsfeed seem to reinforce this - I rarely see the feeds of people I don't think about or know well, but rather, the same few people whose news feeds I often comment on. Secondly, as humans, we have rarely had to explicitly distinguish and name our friends. As such, we're generally lax about it: it's much easier, socially but also emotionally, to call someone a friend and move on with it. This extends to our online worlds - as far as I can tell, there are few of us with the mental fortitude to risk awkwardly destroying a relationship by declaring, "You are not my friend."

Further, the definitive nature of Facebook's interpretation of the social graph in the online space is something that I think I slowly creeps into other services: whether you're on Twitter or Tumblr, there's a certain pressure to, if I am friends with this person, to "follow" them - the idea of a non-reciprocal follow relationship has been interpreted in the context of friends to be an impediment to establishing what the relationship should be - reciprocal. Still, many interactions on Twitter and Tumblr are not subjected to this phenomenon, either because people do not know that person (celebrity follows, such as my following San Jose Sharks players, are an example here), or through the clever application of pseudonyms.

So here's the fundamental issue: increasingly our "followers" and "friends" lists are not about whom we are interested in, but rather, whom we are willing to show a base level of cordial social behavior towards. This, of course, wouldn't be a huge issue if the products were built to take into account the reality of these connections. But now, not only are our social products designed with this assumption, but every other service from Amazon to Yelp seems to be designing around these assumptions as well. If the attention economy is really as important as people claim it to be, it seems to me like this gap in expectations, if solved, would not be a trivial innovation. Services like Path and even Twitter list seem to be beginning to attack this problem, but I'm not convinced they are doing so directly and in the most efficient, scalable way possible.

The more and more I look at the challenge, the more I am convinced that this is one area that probably isn't solved. So I'm thinking more and more about what a great social graph would look like. Though Teethie will probably most definitely start with a traditional follow model, it's one of the areas I want to look into early on in our development - and I honestly don't know what the answer is. I'd be curious to hear from you all your thoughts and what you would like to see in this area.

Further reading:

  • I came across this article on a recent convention in which Mike Maples announced that he believes that social networking is done - and that we will maintain our connections through the social platforms that already exist.

  • Another article, What does 'friend' mean now? seems to be a reaction (at least in part) to the lassez-faire definition of friend that Facebook has seemed to perpetuate.

  • Follow Me, Follow You on Twitter grapples with the obvious utility of the following mechanism and its cultural significance. I point out that in my own Twitter, I make it a point along with my friend Lehrblogger not to follow more than 150 people at once (yes, a nerdy nod to the Dunbar number) - it helps me make sure I'm filtering for the best content.

  • Connection Types was a post from Andrew Parker that describes all the different connection types that are used these days.