I have been a lot thinking about social networks and the online relationships people create. For the most part, creating an online relationship merely means that one side or both added a record to their profile with someone else’s identity. Some networks require confirmation (all relationships are mutual) such as Facebook, while others don’t such as Twitter. Some are binary where you are either connected or disconnected, and some let you define the type and quality of the relationship.
In theory, the more complex the social graph capabilities, the closer the network is to offline human interaction. But what is missing is something very fundamental about relationships and that is maintenance and secrecy.
Maintenance is anything we do to keep a relationship going or sever it. It is the emails, calls, meetings, and other direct interactions. It is also indirect interaction such as staying in touch with someone through someone else like rumors or indirect communication like reading blog posts. Maintenance is critical as it is the actual result of having a relationship with someone. Otherwise having a copy of the local Yellow Pages on your desk will constitutes a social network.
Secrecy is exposing some aspects of a relationship while keeping others hidden. In some cases the two (public and private) can contradict one another completely. I can tell someone they are very dear to me but I actually cannot stand them. There is almost always a difference between what we say and what we think about someone else. Our ability to keep it private to ourselves, or share with a small group of people is essential to our existence as people.
Back to the world of social networks, this can be a real problem. When you meet someone in a conference, you exchange business cards. The other side cannot see what you do with it unless you throw it on the floor in front of them. Even when you send someone an email you usually can’t tell if they opened it or not. But on most social networks, when you ask someone to be their friend, you know if they accepted and sometimes how good of a friend they think you are.
Things work well when everyone likes everyone else, or at least don’t mind having a huge list of friends. There are always factual labels one can throw on a relationship (work together, husband, met in school) that do not imply opinion or quality (unless it is ex-wife). It is when we add relationship quality information, deny a request to befriend someone, or decide to remove someone from our friends list that things get tricky.
I can recall a few times I actually informed someone we are no longer friends. That is usually an extreme situation but when you do that, you can predict the outcome. While I am sure everyone got over me “dumping” them, I also know that getting that message isn’t pleasant. What usually happens is that relationships just fade away. Sometimes they come back and sometimes they don’t. If you are like me and allow your slight OCD to affect your address book, you have a small contact list of only the currently active friends, but most people just let those lists grow. Same with your list of friends on social networks.
What I need to make my online network work as effective as my offline one is to be able to have automatic relationship quality measurement based on actual interaction (as well as manual entries). If you are on my Facebook list of friends but we never interact, I want Facebook to show me (and potentially everyone else) that we are not so close anymore.
I want to be able to tell the system to send a message to all my “close” friends about something that happened to me, and not have to go over my address book and take out all those people I have there whom I hardly talk to. It will also adjust my profile to show less about me to people that are not as close to me. Of course this must be split into categories as a close business contact is not the same as a close personal friend.
And equally as important, I need to be able to lie. I need to be able to add you as a friend and show you that we are best buddies, but really tag you as the most annoying person ever. I will then decide if anyone else but you gets to see this information in which case I will be taking a chance you will find out. But that’s the way it is when I tell one friend I really can’t stand someone else. They can always talk and share.
Implementing a social network graph where every relationship has so many properties is hard but doable. Smart rules can automatically adjust relationship properties and even lie for us. If we decide to block someone, instead of sending them a nasty email telling them that we no longer consider them friend, the system can just decay the relationship (faster) until it turn into a mere link.
Isn’t that how we usually “block” people? Ignore them and hope they get the hint and leave us alone? And wouldn’t it be nice if the system marks them as stalkers for sending us all those unanswered emails? What about making a relationship stronger (if only one sided) when we read someone’s blog on a daily basis?
Social networks are spending all their time and resources on building communities and linking everyone together. I think it is time for them to bring their virtual world back to reality where most people you meet are not your friends, where you often lie or pretend to like someone, where relationships are organic and change through our actions and interactions, and are hardly ever the same since the time they were entered into our address book.