Let’s be acquaintances

28 Sep

in danah boyd‘s 2006 paper “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites,” she explains the dynamics of forming online friendships on the sites Friendster and MySpace. Specifically, she explains that friendships on social networking sites are extremely different from the relationships and practices of maintaining friendships in real life. In fact, she finds that many online friendships are formed simply to appear to have more friends, or because it would be too awkward to decline another’s friendship request. And although she claims that 

it is clear that these manufactured communities are often largely inauthentic. She aptly explains that these social networking sites cannot distinguish between “friends” and “acquaintances,” and it does not appear that the users mind. In fact, she explains that even MySpace’s function of the Top 8–which offers a space for users to list their very closest friends in a prominent spot on their page–is often not used to list top friends, both because it leads to animosity between friends, and because users simply reject it, such as Tila Tequila

boyd was on the right track with her analysis that social networking sites are entirely egocentric. The number of friends we have, who they are, and the interactions we choose to have with them are all markers of our cultural location and how we choose to present ourselves. However, if boyd were to rewrite this paper today, the technological affordances of newer social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter might lead her to some different conclusions about online Friendships.

boyd states 

however, it has become common practice on social networking sites to note the difference between friends and acquaintances online. For Google+ , a large part of the novelty was intended to be the concept of “circles” of friends–when you add a new friend, you place them into a circle that is only visible to you, and then when you write a post you decide which circles you want to share it with. However, similar concepts were already in place on Facebook and Twitter with the option of lists. On Twitter, lists can be made public or private, and act as a way to filter tweets coming in. Those you follow can be grouped any way you like, and it is up to you if you would like to make these lists public and visible to all, or private and only visible to you. On Facebook, the lists are even more similar to Google+ because users can create lists, view all the posts and interactions of list members in one place, and write posts specifically intended for and only visible to members of that list.

Although these distinctions are not entirely new (boyd mentions similar privacy options for posts on Live Journal) their prevalence is newly noteworthy. Recently, Facebook took on the burden of creating and managing lists for users. boyd has been proven wrong: there is a distinction between friends and acquaintances, and through a new technological affordance, Facebook can determine the distinction for you. 

A September 27th report by the Portland, Maine News Center explains the new feature:

Have you noticed lately that you’ve seen less from certain friends on Facebook? Well they’re probably not “un-friending” you. They’ve probably moved to your acquaintances list. 

The developers at Facebook have taken it into their own hands to organize our friends and acquaintances, and filter and manage the posts we are shown in our news feeds. In the earlier models of social networking sites, it was up to the users to browse their friends pages and see what they were posting, so having a huge number of “friends,” even if you didn’t know them or care at all about what they were posting, was not a nuisance. However, the Facebook newsfeed changed that. I remember when some earlier changes to the Facebook newsfeed annoyed users: it was annoying and seemed stalkerish to see every single interaction my friends were having with others. Twitter can be similarly annoying when, on the home feed, every single tweet–including conversational replies to others–are posted. Without lists, these feeds can be a lot to digest for even the most modest users who befriend only those they wish to stay connected with. And for those who think that “having lots of friends makes you look popular” an unfiltered feed can be downright overwhelming.

In response, Facebook began tracking whose pages you visit most frequently, who you interact with most, and who you seem to be most interested in hearing from regularly. There is the option to move “close friends” whose posts annoy you to the “acquaintances” list so that you will not be bombarded by their every message, as well as the option to move the acquaintances you are most interested in but don’t appear to interact with onto your list of close friends so you will never miss a post. The function even offers notifications with every post your close friends make, enforcing that close connection and making sure you never miss anything you might be intended to see.  

Though users maintain some control with the option to alter these pre-made lists, it puts into question boyd’s notion that users frame the social norms on social networking sites. By organizing–literally ranking–your friends, Facebook is enacting a lot of control over the way we interact on the social networking site. 

However, despite the option to ignore “friends” you have little interest in interacting with, authenticity on social networking sites is still as important as boyd explains it was during the “Friendster Genocide.” In fact, very similar action is being taken right now by Facebook in an attempt to put an end to fake profiles and bots “liking” pages and giving false page view counts to advertisers. Brittany Fitzgerald of the Huffington Post explains what is being called “Operation Unlike

Over the last several days, Facebook has been sweeping its site and eliminating fake accounts…[due to the fact that] “Facebook was built on the principle of real identity and we want this same authenticity to extend to Pages. We undoubtedly expect that this will be a positive change…” the company blog states.

Six years later, social networking sites have to fight just as hard to maintain an authentic site. Some sites, like MySpace, as boyd explains, and Twitter, embrace fake profiles. The number of fan sites, many of which claim to be the “real” person they represent, are prevalent on Twitter. Twitter clarifies this by verifying celebrity users, but has no qualms with the remaining fake profiles. But how do users feel about it all? What does an authentic social networking experience look like? Clearly, when these handles are not verified it is clear they are inauthentic, yet they maintain followers. Users allow Facebook to organize their friends for them, and even put labels on them–is this authenticity? Though the sites are no longer new, users are still navigating their online communities and identities through the affordances, restrictions, and common practices on social networking sites. 



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