don’t get me wrong: facebook is — despite everything…or, at least, despite most things — an incredibly useful app and is — right this very second — changing the web. where, once upon a time, we found links that were designed to be useful to us based on a highly complex algorithm, facebook wants to show us links (and other stuff) based on our interpersonal relationships (specifically, stuff our friends like). and that’s a good thing; in many ways, it humanizes our experience of the web that would otherwise isolate us from human interaction. no, clicking on a link some friend of a friend posted to facebook doesn’t replace a conversation, but it’s a lot more natural than clicking a link a computer generated based on popular references to that particular combination of words and (possibly) previous searches you’ve done.
but i noticed something the last couple of days: random friend requests.
i claim to be a fairly socially networked person. i mean, i’ve got a profile on a million different networks (those on my about page are only the more popular ones that i don’t just use to syndicate or point to other profiles elsewhere), and — as co-founder of a design studio i am trying to advertise for and author of a blog i’m trying to generate traffic to — i’m not terribly concerned about who’s looking for me or what they find when they find me (assuming what they see is what i want them to see). i’m also aware of the concept that anything you put on the web, anywhere, can and will be used everywhere it can be found on the web. which is to say i realize that the information you put out there, no matter where it is and how “private” it claims to be, is out there for anyone to see, and someone will see it and find it and use it for something. it’s a little like your miranda rights, actually: anything you post can and will be used against you on the internet. this is (and has always been) especially true for facebook. my point is that i’m not altogether put off by random people wanting to friend me on facebook. i mean, i put my facebook profile on my blog, i have to expect that some people are going to click it and maybe a few people will want to add me to their network.
i admit, i don’t go to the actual facebook site very often. i use nutshell mail to send recent updates from various social networks, so i get daily activity summaries and notification of people posting on my wall or whatever. i don’t hang out on facebook playing mafia wars or trolling other peoples’ profiles. i’ve got some stuff pumped into facebook automatically and i pretty much leave it unless i’m really bored and have some time to kill. so i didn’t notice when, suddenly, in my suggested friends box, there was a shift from just friends of friends or people i may actually have known (due to a shared acquaintance) to just random people i’ve never met or seen or share any mutual friends with whatsoever. after checking out a few of them, it occurred to me that this was where the couple random friend invites i had been getting were coming from; they had found me in the same “recommended users” screen. even if i wasn’t able to see their actual list of interests, it was fairly obvious that these new suggested friends probably shared some interest that facebook had made public when it converted my list of stuff i do and like into like likes — links to public pages on those topics.
ah, there’s the rub. the current usage of your “like” information now connects you to other individuals on facebook who also like the same thing, regardless of whether you share any sort of pre-existing social connection with that person.
sure, it’s still consensual — i have to respond to the friend request, so there’s still an extra layer of privacy than someone following me on twitter. and most things on facebook you can opt out of (if you dig hard enough in your privacy settings). on the other hand, unlike twitter, i have to allow the friend request for them to passively read my posts, which then is equivalent to following them on twitter — and i tend to try to keep the people i’m following to a small(ish) number to protect me from information overload. i can be a dick and ignore or deny the request, or i can accept it (and then be a dick — albeit a fairly anonymous one — by hiding their posts from my news feed). the thing is, the whole theory of facebook is (or was, anyway) that it works better when you are creating links between products and websites and activities that are based out of some sort of social circle — because even if you don’t hang out with those second and third degree friends from high school anymore, it’s still fairly probable that — since you ran in the same circles at some point in time — you share some common interests, and maybe they have some unique interests that are separate from your current social circle that would be interesting and new to you. allowing random people into that equation just doesn’t work. it’s like mixing oil and water.
the new “suggested friends” based on common interests makes it much less socially awkward (and therefore it will be much more common) to “friend” people you don’t know on facebook because now facebook is recommending you do just that. whereas before, you typically had a sort of uncomfortable conversation with the person, now said conversation is completely unnecessary; you can just friend someone and be artificially plugged into their network (or not). this policy will make much larger networks between users possible, but i don’t know if that will be entirely beneficial. the cool thing about facebook was that the traditional usage was that it was people you actually knew in real life, making it like any other IRL social network, bringing families and long lost high school buds together in the glorious way that only the internet can (by pumping up a false sense of intimacy and removing the wall of inhibitions by substituting in-face conversation with the conversely less intimate text conversation).
networking people based on a common interest as opposed to a real-life connection is great for the people who are paying facebook money (i.e. advertisers and investors). but allowing random people who may (or may not) share your interests takes away from the intimacy of what facebook used to be. there’s no real unique value to the actual users to have a sprawling network of “social” connections on par with @aplusk‘s follower list…