Creepy Social Networking

Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting article about social networking [1]. One of his points is “Imagine how creepy it would be to wander into a co-worker’s cubicle and discover the wall covered with tiny photos of everyone in the office, ranked by “friend” and “foe,” with the top eight friends elevated to a small shrine decorated with Post-It roses and hearts“, another concerns the issue of forced “friends” where colleagues and casual acquaintances demand to be added to a friends list.

He speculates that the reason for social networking systems to be a fad is that once too many people you don’t really like force themselves into your friends list then you will feel compelled to join a different service.

I believe that the practice of ranking friends is simply a bad idea and wonder whether anyone who has completed high-school has ever used it seriously. If you publicly rank your friends then you will alienate other friends (particularly any who might have ranked you more highly than you ranked them). Everyone who has used social networking systems has discovered the pressure to avoid alienating people that you don’t actually like. It seems obvious that alienating people who you do like is even more of a problem.

In my previous post about Better Social Networking [2] I suggested having multiple lists on your social networking server that are published to different people. That would allow segregating the lists as a way of dealing with some demands to be listed. People who are associated with work (colleagues, managers, and in an example Cory used students at a school where a teacher worked) would be on a work list. The work list would point to the work profiles of other people which would match whatever the standards are for the industry in question (which would still allow quite a range, the standards for sys-admins of ISPs differ significantly from those for primary school teachers). I’m sure that someone who worked for an ISP in Amsterdam would understand that a work-based friend request made to someone who teaches primary school in a part of the world that is religiously conservative would understand why that request would be declined (but the same person might add them to a personal friends list).

Another way of alleviating such problems is to not require that listing be bi-directional. Current social networking systems involve one party making a friend request to another which is listed as pending in the GUI for both parties. The options are to either leave it in that state (which is an annoyance) or reject it (which may cause offence). With a uni-directional listing one party would add the other and hope for the best. If they aren’t obsessive about such things they may not even notice that the other party didn’t reciprocate. Also it would allow for famous people receiving links from many people to their public profile without any expectation of reciprocation. Of course a distributed social networking system such as I suggest would inherently have uni-directional links as there would be no central repository to force them to be all bi-directional.

3 comments to Creepy Social Networking