Levels of Friendship

One of my biggest gripes about most online social networks that I participate in (Facebook, LIVE, etc) is the absence of functionality that takes into account how “strong” or “open” my friendship is with any given person. Fixing this is a major opportunity — if not a long-term, competitive imperative — for social networks in general, and the video game ecosystems that aspire to be legitimate social networks in specific.

We do not treat all our friends and acquaintances equally in real life, so why should social networks force us to treat our online connections in equal fashion? People need tools that enable them to selectively modify how any given user in their network can view their profile, interact with them, etc. This process of selective modification can be sped up with user-defined “friend types” that can be applied, in a stroke, to many users in a network.

For example, were such a system to be implemented for LIVE or Facebook, I would personally choose to break all my connections into three categories:

  • Friend Type 1: People who are my very close friends and family — I am always happy for them to know when I’m online, and always happy to receive direct messages or status updates from them. Communications from people in this category should be marked as special and/or sorted to the top of the list. Also, if I’m in the middle of a conversation or game with somebody, these are the only people who I want to be able to “interrupt” in any way.
  • Friend Type 2: People who are friends, co-workers, business partners, neighbors, etc. These people account for the vast majority of my social network connections. I’m generally quite happy to connect with them, and I want to know what is happening in their lives, but I don’t need to see every single photo they’ve commented on and every ticket they’ve received in Parking Wars — it clogs my news feed and annoys me. I’d also like the system to intelligently manage (and by that, I mean condense) status updates and other communications from people in this category who, to put it politely, tend to over-communicate — much as I appreciate minute-by-minute updates on their dog’s diarrhea or baby’s rash, those things clog my news feed and inbox in an unacceptable manner, too.
  • Friend Type 3: People who I’d rather not be connected to online, but whose invitation I cannot refuse or ignore for practical reasons. I don’t want these people to know that I am online, and I don’t want to see their broadcast updates. The very best thing a social network can do for me, in this situation, is creatively mask my presence yet still give these “friends” the impression that they are meaningfully connected to me.

For years now, most IM clients have offered rudimentary tools that enable you to segment your friends into the groups I’ve defined above (though they do a poor job of helping you to effortlessly create the “meaningful” connection I describe in Type 3.) Most video game ecosystems and social networks need to offer the same tools — if not something much better. Otherwise, the mere act of logging in will become increasingly painful for our most connected users — the people with the most “connection spam” to deal with, and the very people we most want to keep happy.

10 Responses to Levels of Friendship

  1. As far as I know, Facebook offers some tools to get something pretty similar to what you describe:
    You can use lists to classify your friends in order for them to see only what you want to. Very useful for the type 3 friend!
    In your feeds, you can choose to have more or less feeds about a specific person by clicking on the cross next to this person’s feed. There was also a feature which allowed to specify your relationship to the person(I don’t know if it’s still available in the new Facebook: when you added a friend, you were prompted to enter how you met this person. Anyway that’s how I do it to keep my feeds clean :D

  2. Completely agreed, David. I’ve felt the same way about the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world. While Cecile is right in that there are a few ways to create groups of friends, the problem I have is that social networks allow for you to count the quantity of your relationships but does not account for the quality of them. Close friends and family; former classmates and work associations; acquaintances; and then folks I don’t know well seems like a good four-tiered system. This is especially a concern for me when it comes to LInkedIn, where the system is predicated on the “worth” of your network. To me, it would be easier to accept people I don’t know as well if I could indicate just that, that they are on the fringe of my network; furthermore, it would mean much more than “500+ connections,” a system driven by people feel their worth comes from amassing as many connections as possible. I have a lot of connections myself, but I wish I could indicate which ones were people I’ve worked closely with; which ones were people I’ve worked more loosely with; which ones were people I’ve only known a little; and which ones are people I don’t know well or would like to know more. If the system was made so that you could easily move people further into your circle over time, I think it would be a very useful way to use the technology and would get people more engaged with LinkedIn. It would also help me know when it’s best to have a friend make a connection for me, etc. I’ve often had people ask me to make a connection of a contact of someone who is a fringe contact of mine in the first place. If there were a way for us to already see quality of connection, it might cut down on all those misunderstandings, etc.

  3. good points david and commenters. One thing that we forget though, is a basic human need to be “accepted” and the emotional backlash with not being “accepted”. Let me clarify. Ever go to someone’s facebook profile and realize that you were categorized into a restricted list? it is not an issue when you barely knew the person (e.g. a networking contact) but if it was someone you thought was a stronger connection or quasi-friend, you feel kinda bumbed since that person did not show a reciprocal level of connection/friendship. So i think some people just choose to not segregate their connections into lists, for fear of being discovered. Lol – ya, i know…. put it this way, in RL, we make deliberate and obvious distinctions among friends / acquaintances in how we interact with them, choose not to interact with them, pay attention, or ignore. It is all very subtle and the subject of our indifference does not really know. but on facebook, it is all right there for them to see – they ahve been segregated into a list! “Oh noes – person XYZ is rejecting me”. So unless there was some way to mirror the subtle association/disassocation that occurs in RL with the way that interactive social commuities are structured, it will be difficult for people to accept that they must now actually SHOW the person how they have already categorized them in RL. Anyways, that is how i see this whole peanutbutter approach that folks take to facebook friends, etc…

  4. @Cecile — I thought Facebook just had two pseudo-categories; “show more about these friends” and “less about these friends.” That’s not nearly granular enough for me, but maybe I’m missing something? (Also, it’s annoying to me that Facebook hides key feed-manipulation UI elements in certain pages, like in home.php?tab=3 — makes it hard to edit things when I want to.)

    @Sam — You got it… quality of relationship (and moreover, the recognition that quality can be measured multiple different ways. You may be my best friend, but you may also have a bad habit of posting a billion photos a day. I want to keep getting all your status updates — in fact, I want them to sort to the top of my list — but I don’t want to see your photos.)

    @eastcoaster — that is precisely what I meant by “creatively mask my presence yet still give these ‘friends’ the impression that they are meaningfully connected to me.” The system should be smart about this.

  5. Since you brought up LIVE I figured I’d say something:

    There really needs to be two different types of friends on LIVE.

    1. Your friends
    2. People you’d like to compare high scores with. (an example would be how Twitter does ‘Follow this user’.

    Ive posted this on the gamerscore blog a long time ago, and was told it was a good idea but never saw anything come of it.

    See, I’d like to see the high score that Major Nelson, or e, or some other ‘famous’ people post up. I dont want to or need to know if they are online or not. I dont necessarily want to play games with them either. I just want to see how I rank against them.

    You should be able to have 100 friends (current limit) and have something like 50 people you follow. LIVE would consider those 50 follows as ‘Friends’ when looking at any type of ranking system.

  6. Dave,

    Cecile was right, and talking about something broader than what you’ve noted. Determining how much you see on the Activity Feed is one thing, but there’s also another complete toolset for organizing your friends into “lists.” Once you’ve constructed a list of friends, you can send a message to all members of the list, and can also control specific privacy and profile display settings which will apply to all list members — which lets it do exactly what you describe in your post.

    Also: you going to be at FoE this weekend?

  7. Hey Ivan — I’m going to miss FoE I’m afraid. Bad timing, with NXE launch happening this week. :-(

    RE: Facebook, help me out here. I found the list functionality long ago but don’t see where it enables me to block 100% of status/news updates from people included in a given list (i.e. “type 3 friends”) and I don’t see where it enables me to prevent type 3 friends from seeing that I’m online. I also don’t see how I can block updates of a given type from everyone in a given list (i.e. if you’re a person included in this list, I should *never* see photos that you have commented on, but I still want to see your status updates.)

  8. Your just put your finger right onto what prevents me to use Facebook. I have several networks of friends, co-workers, business relations, acquaintances, family members etc… I would be happy to keep in sync with all of them, but I don’t want all those networks to be mixed. For example, I don’t want my co-workers to watch pictures of parties I have with my close friends. I don’t even want them to know who my close friends are, nor who’s my family. So, until there is a simple way to create separate networks, I won’t be using social network tools. Too bad…

  9. It’s an interesting subject. I remember we spoke about this some when I worked at MS. There are so many different vectors to this that it’s not as simple as levels on a hierarchy (which kind of implies 1-dimension – depth of friendship or whatever).

    A couple things that come to mind:

    – The binding of identity to persona isn’t necesarily 1:1. On Live it is, and I beleive that’s flawed. If you guys were ever to do a deal with WoW, for example, there’s a binding of my identity to my WoW character(s) that are not necesarily the same as my gamertag.

    [as an aside: An interesting excercise here is to walk through your XBLA friends list and see how many people have created avatars that look like their real-life personage, vs ‘fantasy-based’.]

    – Aside from depth of friendship, there’s different types or social circles or whatever. I have friends from work that I’m very close with, closer than many of my family members, but I might not want them seeing my pix from my buddy’s bachelor party or whatever. Might be ok with personal friends seeing those, but not mom; and yet she’s “top of hierarchy”, right?

    – nature of relationship. Someone on my wow guild might want only to see wow-related updates from me, ‘deep’ or not.

    One could take this to the extreme, and say that it’s a cloud-based, tag-based world, with no definitive hierarchies. The trick then is how to present this to users in a fashion that is grokkable, usable without excessive usage burden.

    Whoever ends up giving an attractive balance to customers will have a leg up. And there very well be more than one solution.

  10. What, no one has mentioned Flickr yet? They do a great job of this.

    1 = Family
    2 = Friends
    3 = Contacts

    Done. :) Now if everyone else would just adopt it.

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