The Null Device

The meaning of "Friend"ship and social software design

An interesting article, by danah boyd, on the social dynamics of Friend relations in social software, predominantly Friendster and MySpace:
The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:
  1. Actual friends
  2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
  3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
  4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
  5. It's a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
  6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
  7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
  8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
  9. It's the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
  10. Being Friends lets you see someone's bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
  11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
  12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
  13. It's easier to say yes than no
Boyd, er, boyd describes some ways in which the design of a social-network implementation (i.e., is Friendship transitive, what information is displayed about users, how access to information is controlled, and whether or not friendships can be ranked) influences the social dynamics:
Collecting is advantageous for bands and companies and thus, they want to make it advantageous for participants to be fans; because there is little cost to do so, those who connect figure, "why not?" When Friends appear on someone's Profile, there is a great incentive to make sure that the Profiles listed help say something about the individual.
When a Friend request is sent, the recipient is given two options: accept or decline. This is usually listed under a list of pending connections that do not disappear until one of the two choices is selected. While most systems do not notify the sender of a recipient's decline, the sender can infer a negative response if the request does not result in their pages being linked. Additionally, many systems let the sender see which of their requests is still pending. Thus, they know whether or not the recipient acted upon it. This feature encourages recipients to leave an awkward relationship as pending but to complicate matters, most systems also display when a person last logged in on their Profile. Since it is generally known that the pending list is the first thing you see when you login, it is considered rude to login and not respond to a request. For all of these reasons, it's much easier to just say yes than to face questions about why the sender was ignored or declined.
There is more fodder here for those who hold that MySpace is evil; the site, it seems, is designed to clutter social networks with "junk friends" (i.e., strangers and brand campaigns) and deliberately amplify social drama. Case in point: its "Top 8" feature, which allows users to say who is and isn't their bestest friend ever, and/or to whine about not being in someone's Top 8.
"As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. 'If you let me play I'll invite you to my birthday party.' Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it's the MySpace Top 8. It's the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off."
When Emily removed Andy from her Top 8, he responded with a Comment [13] on her page, "im sad u took me off your Top 8." Likewise, even though Nigel was never on Ann's Top 8, he posted a Comment asking, "y cant i b on ur top 8?" These Comments are visible to anyone looking at Emily or Ann's page. By taking their hurt to the Comment section rather than privately messaging Ann and Emily, Nigel and Andy are letting a wider audience know that they feel "dissed."
"Myspace always seems to cause way too much drama and i am so dang sick of it. im sick of the pain and the hurt and tears and the jealousy and the heartache and the truth and the lies ... it just SUCKS! ... im just so sick of the drama and i just cant take it anymore compared to all the love its supposed to make us feel. i get off just feeling worse. i have people complain to me that they are not my number one on my top 8. come on now. grow up. its freaking myspace." -- Olivia
Small design decisions make a profound difference to how a social web site works. MySpace seems to be designed to maximise social pressures and exacerbate social anxiety and drama. This may be out of thoughtlessness (which wouldn't surprise me, given the generally inelegant design of the site), as part of some kind of Milgram/Zimbardo-esque psychological experiment (see also: Reality TV), or just an externality of maximising appeal to advertisers and youth marketers. LiveJournal, in contrast, goes out of its way to minimise drama; for example, its notification engine won't tell you if you've been unfriended.

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