With a 150-friend limit on the mobile social network Path, who you select as your friend--and who you don't--could be the difference between a warm show of intimacy and a personal slap to the face. But a new solution hinted at during SXSW could finally end the awkwardness of curating our relationships online.
Organizing friendships in the digital space has long been a significant challenge for social networks, and companies ranging from GroupMe to Google have worked to find an adequate solution. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once even called it the "biggest problem in social networking." During a talk with Fast Company at SXSW, Path product head Dylan Casey dreamed up one answer to the issue: "auto-degraded friendships."
Rather than have to self-curate our own networks, Casey envisions a time when Path could remove a friend from your network automatically if you begin to lose touch. "We actually think a lot about the kind of social pressures that come from friend requests from people that you may or may not want to be that connected to, but you feel some other type of obligation to them," Casey says. "How do you deal with that? People feel a lot of tension around [this], and it's interesting because I don't think we have a problem face to face deciding who we want to spend time with. Imagine you are at a social event or in a bar, and there are a number of people who you know. You choose who you want to spend your time with. But on social networks, there's a completely different dynamic."
The problem is not only that it's difficult work to curate your own networks--or tiring in the case of Google+ Circles--but that there can be other social or professional consequences for friending or de-friending someone online, like, say, when you choose to unfollow a coworker on Instagram or ignore your aunt's request to join your Facebook network. "These days, it's kind of okay not to respond to someone's email because you can kind of blow it off like, 'Oh yeah, I get thousands [of messages]. It's not personal,'" Casey says. "I think we socially accept that on a social-policy level. But if you send a friend request and I don't respond to it, especially on a network that only has 150 friends, [you'll be] like, 'Hey, what's the deal? We went out to dinner the other day.'"
One possible fix? The ability to have online friendship requests or friendships simply auto-degrade--just fade away--if there isn't the proper level of intimacy. "We spend a lot of time thinking about," Casey continues. "Maybe we can just help you not be connected with that person…I imagine that over time that model will evolve to accommodate the social pressures around unwanted friend requests."
Casey stresses that this solution is "not something that we're planning on building anytime soon," but adds, "I think is a challenge we're still trying to figure out. I think if we can figure it out."
He adds, "I think it's more along the lines of like, 'Hey, listen, you really haven't talked to [him] in a while; are you sure you want to continue sharing all your baby photos with him?'"
[Image: Flickr user José Manuel Ríos Valiente]