Kristen "Kroosh" Crusius wrote a post the other day about what's going on in her "Friendiverse"... her universe of friends. Her post reminded me that I had intended to comment about Robert Scoble's videos about how social networks' "friends lists" really work.
I didn't get around to writing that post because I've been incredibly busy for the last two months.
I think the term "Friends", as automatically used by several social sites is an unfortunate and misleading label. This is especially true when there are no other choices. You're forced into a binary system.... Accept or Decline... Yes or No... 1 or 0... My-Friend or Not-My-Friend. Unfortunately, as Scoble pointed out in his videos, reality doesn't work like that. There are different levels and flavors of relationships between people. Business relationships, Family relationships, Intimate relationships, Adversarial relationships... I think linkedin has it right with the generic term "contact". How many 'contacts' do you have? They're not (your friends) by default, nor are they (not your friends) by default. Still, in linkedin, there are several types of business relationships, including people that you have worked with personally... people you have not worked with personally, but you trust whomever recommended them to you... people you have not worked with and you have no professional recommendations for, but you vouch for them as a person, so you are happy to recommend them to someone who's looking to fill a position.... people you have no intention of recommending to anyone, but you will still accept them as a contact... people that you are in contact with specifically so you can set them up with other people..... ALL of these are thrown in together under the title 'contact'.
Because of the misnomer "friends", some people have selected this to mean their ACTUAL friends and will only add people that they actually know. Here, I agree with Scoble's assertion that this is an incorrect usage of social networks. How are you supposed to expand your circle of CONTACTS or "sphere of influence" if you limit yourself on the internet to only the people you know IRL? How are you supposed to learn about new people that might have similar interests or ideals if you deny them connection to you? What's the point of being on a social site if you're only going to get in touch with the same people you're already in contact with? I think that if they had levels of acquaintance on these sites, a lot more people would be connected to each other, because the categories would make sense to them. You would be able to see at-a-glance what level each person had placed their contacts on, and make a better assessment of their actual interaction with each other.
Looking at it from the other direction... It's not fair that someone that sends you a friends request out of the blue has the exact same status as someone you collaborate with or work with or highly respect or go out for drinks with or climb mountains and eat pancakes with. Both the random person and the IRL friend are marked down as "Friend". There's no meritocracy. Even with facebook's relationship qualifiers, that's a SECONDARY trait. It's like having everyone in your military with the rank of 'Private', and you have to go to each Private and ask them what their actual importance is in order to determine who out-ranks whom. No. It doesn't work like that. You can tell from the bars or whatever emblem on their shoulders who's running the show and who's going to be digging the trenches.
In the absence of actual distinctions, I think the best approach to accepting/rejecting social site "friends" is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. It's always a good thing when you can see the applicant's friends list in order to tell who might know them that YOU know and whose judgement you trust. When I know certain people don't like jerks, and those people are "friends" with someone, I'm more likely to take my ACTUAL friend's word that this other person is cool. That would seem to go against what I was saying earlier, because what if my friend is using the same "innocent until proven guilty" style that I am? :) I would be accepting an untested "friend". However, checks & balances will come into play. If the untested person actually interacts with the community, they'll start getting "reviews" which will help you decide whether you want to keep them as a friend or not. Ultimately, the circle polices itself.
I was thinking about Kroosh's "Friendiverse" yesterday, while I was watching Drew's live stream from PodCamp Philly. It's a much more intimate format... giving personal, "hand-written" recommendations of places to go, people to see and things to do. I saw many people from MY Friendiverse on Drew's stream yesterday... Kathryn, Eric, Jackson, Jonny, Steve, Grace, Charles... and ran into others in the text chat who were also watching the stream.
Ultimately, I've been inspired to focus more time & energy on the upper echelon of my own personal Friendiverse. In the game called "keeping up with the net", it's very easy to miss out on telling the people that matter to you how cool you think they are. :)