by: Wyatt Wood
Real life relationships are complex enough, add the digital medium with a sprinkle of ego and the relationship points become more complicated. In a social network defining relationships beyond friendship is a tough problem to solve.
In the story “Are You My Mother?” by P. D. Eastman, the baby bird explores the world looking to find his mother, confused he asks if each character in the story is his mother. In the end a digger ends up dropping him back home to his real mother. Just like this, it seems every social network touts the idea of being a friend, but none offer ways to satisfactorily address the complexity of the relationship.
The issue of the complexity of digital relationships started with linking to other websites. Defining the link relationship has been an issue since the early days of the Internet, thus the creation of NoFollow and the XHTML Friends Network (XFN). These tools were developed to define in the code what human relationships exist between the two websites. According to Wikipedia, the “nofollow” HTML attribute was originally designed to stop comment spam on blogs. Stemming from this concept the XFN specification outlines the relationships between individuals by defining a small set of values that describe personal relationships. Thus, using XFN, machines that parse your web pages, as well as other humans, can see how you are related to the pages you link to.
But it doesn’t stop with links, relationships involve the action (or lack of action) taken between users on a given social network. It can be like high school all over again.
Of all the large digital networks, Facebook has the greatest to gain by improving relationship classifications and tools to manage the dynamics of human relationships. For example in the event of a relationship fallout – the possibility to loose digital property such as tagged images when the relationship status changes is a real problem. But taking an aggressive approach to the relationship such as disliking a friend or their action could add balance to the existing reconnect strategy.
The advent of life streaming added more dynamics to relationship algorithm with more immediate conversation tools and ways to define and track a relationship by time. Sites like LinkedIn have an advantage of defining the relationship based on a time and professional association. Yet, still fall short when truly giving information into how connected you really are with someone because you’re afraid of fallout from six degrees of separation. Below is an example of my Facebook network and how interconnected the relationships are with each other.
In the early days of Twitter it was etiquette to just friend back anyone who followed you. Now, unless the user is of interest it is fine to not reciprocate the follow; however, with the addition of the list feature being exclusionary in nature misunderstandings in the network relationships have begun.
Now with geo-location tools like FourSquare – I believe some connections shouldn’t know every move you make. I understand the benefits of advertising your location – such as getting friends together for karaoke; however, I really don’t care if you’ve been to Starbucks 15 times this week. Or more dramatic, announcing your attendance to a Democratic convention with Republican parents who follow your stream can lead to icy conversations around the dinner table. Having location data is great for location aware networks and the ability to offer additional features, yet the ability to merge privacy with relationship classification will be a big advance in social networks.
When it comes down to it, being a big deal is not as big as you think, but I think there needs to be continued thought given to online relationship classifications. The next big thing in relationship dynamics online will be the ability to go beyond just measuring compatibility between individuals to being able to craft (control) your life message based on the individual audience. The concept of a digital “friend” will morph into the classification structures like we have in real life. Be honest, do you really want to be “friends” with a brand? What ways do you think relationship dynamics will change on the Internet in the next 3 months to 5 years?