Ramblings & ephemera

Social networking and “friendship”

From danah boyd’s “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites” (First Monday: December 2006)

John’s reference to “gateway Friends” concerns a specific technological affordance unique to Friendster. Because the company felt it would make the site more intimate, Friendster limits users from surfing to Profiles beyond four degrees (Friends of Friends of Friends of Friends). When people login, they can see how many Profiles are “in their network” where the network is defined by the four degrees. For users seeking to meet new people, growing this number matters. For those who wanted it to be intimate, keeping the number smaller was more important. In either case, the number of people in one’s network was perceived as directly related to the number of friends one had.

“I am happy with the number of friends I have. I can access over 26,000 profiles, which is enough for me!” — Abby

The number of Friends one has definitely affects the size of one’s network but connecting to Collectors plays a much more significant role. Because these “gateway friends” (a.k.a. social network hubs) have lots of Friends who are not connected to each other, they expand the network pretty rapidly. Thus, connecting to Collectors or connecting to people who connect to Collectors opens you up to a large network rather quickly.

While Collectors could be anyone interested in amassing many Friends, fake Profiles were developed to aid in this process. These Fakesters included characters, celebrities, objects, icons, institutions, and ideas. For example, Homer Simpson had a Profile alongside Jesus and Brown University. By connecting people with shared interests or affiliations, Fakesters supported networking between like-minded individuals. Because play and connecting were primary incentives for many Fakesters, they welcomed any and all Friends. Likewise, people who wanted access to more people connected to Fakesters. Fakesters helped centralize the network and two Fakesters — Burning Man and Ali G — reached mass popularity with over 10,000 Friends each before the Web site’s creators put an end to their collecting and deleted both accounts. This began the deletion of all Fakesters in what was eventually termed the Fakester Genocide [8].

While Friendster was irritated by fake Profiles, MySpace embraced this practice. One of MySpace’s early strategies was to provide a place for everyone who was rejected from Friendster or who didn’t want to be on a dating site [9]. Bands who had been kicked off of Friendster were some of the earliest MySpace users. Over time, movie stars, politicians, porn divas, comedians, and other celebrities joined the fray. Often, the person behind these Profiles was not the celebrity but a manager. Corporations began creating Profiles for their products and brands. While Friendster eventually began allowing such fake Profiles for a fee, MySpace never charged people for their commercial uses.

Investigating Friendship in LiveJournal, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) found that there was tremendous inconsistency in why people Friended others. They primarily found that Friendship stood for: content, offline facilitator, online community, trust, courtesy, declaration, or nothing. When I asked participants about their practices on Friendster and MySpace, I found very similar incentives. The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:

1. Actual friends
2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
5. It’s a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
9. It’s the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
10. Being Friends lets you see someone’s bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
13. It’s easier to say yes than no

These incentives account for a variety of different connections. While the first three reasons all concern people that you know, the rest can explain why people connect to a lot of people that they do not know. Most reveal how technical affordances affect people’s incentives to connect.

Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) also found that there is a great deal of social anxiety and drama provoked by Friending in LiveJournal (LJ). In LJ, Friendship does not require reciprocity. Anyone can list anyone else as a Friend; this articulation is public but there is no notification. The value of Friendship on LJ is deeply connected to the privacy settings and subscription processes. The norm on LJ is to read others’ entries through a “Friends page.” This page is an aggregation of all of an individual’s Friends’ posts. When someone posts an LJ entry, they have a choice as to whether the post should be public, private, Friends-only, or available to subgroups of Friends. In this way, it is necessary to be someone’s Friend to have access to Friends-only posts. To locate how the multiple and conflicting views of Friendship cause tremendous conflict and misunderstanding on LJ, Raynes-Goldie and Fono speak of “hyperfriending.” This process is quite similar to what takes place on other social network sites, but there are some differences. Because Friends-only posts are commonplace, not being someone’s Friend is a huge limitation to information access. Furthermore, because reciprocity is not structurally required, there’s a much greater social weight to recognizing someone’s Friendship and reciprocating intentionally. On MySpace and Friendster, there is little to lose by being loose with Friendship and more to gain; the perception is that there is much more to lose on LJ.

While users can scroll through their list of Friends, not all Friends are displayed on the participant’s Profile. Most social network sites display Friends in the order in which their account was created or their last login date. By implementing a “Top 8” feature, MySpace changed the social dynamics around the ordering of Friends. Initially, “Top 8” allowed users to select eight Friends to display on their Profile. More recently, that feature was changed to “Top Friends” as users have more options in how many people they could list [12]. Many users will only list people that they know and celebrities that they admire in their Top Friends, often as a way to both demarcate their identity and signal meaningful relationships with others.

There are many advantages to the Top Friends feature. It allows people to show connections that really say something about who they are. It also serves as a bookmark to the people that matter. By choosing to list the people who one visits the most frequently, simply going to one’s Profile provides a set of valuable links.

“As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. ‘If you let me play I’ll invite you to my birthday party.’ Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it’s the MySpace Top 8. It’s the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off.” — Nadine

There are a handful of social norms that pervade Top 8 culture. Often, the person in the upper left (“1st” position) is a significant other, dear friend, or close family member. Reciprocity is another salient component of Top Friends dynamics. If Susan lists Mary on her Top 8, she expects Mary to reciprocate. To acknowledge this, Mary adds a Comment to Susan’s page saying, “Thanx for puttin me on ur Top 8! I put you on mine 2.” By publicly acknowledging this addition, Mary is making certain Susan’s viewers recognize Mary’s status on Susan’s list. Of course, just being in someone’s list is not always enough. As Samantha explains, “Friends get into fights because they’re not 1st on someone’s Top 8, or somebody else is before them.” While some people are ecstatic to be added, there are many more that are frustrated because they are removed or simply not listed.

The Top Friends feature requires participants to actively signal their relationship with others. Such a system makes it difficult to be vague about who matters the most, although some tried by explaining on their bulletins what theme they are using to choose their Top 8 this week: “my Sagittarius friends,” “my basketball team,” and “people whose initials are BR.” Still others relied on fake Profiles for their Top 8.

The networked nature of impressions does not only affect the viewer — this is how newcomers decided what to present in the first place. When people first joined Friendster, they took cues from the people who invited them. Three specific subcultures dominated the early adopters — bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man [14] festival, and gay men mostly living in New York. If the invitee was a Burner, their Profile would probably be filled with references to the event with images full of half-naked, costumed people running around the desert. As such, newcomers would get the impression that it was a site for Burners and they would create a Profile that displayed that facet of their identity. In decided who to invite, newcomers would perpetuate the framing by only inviting people who are part of the Burning Man subculture.

Interestingly, because of this process, Burners believed that the site was for Burners, gay men thought it was a gay dating site, and bloggers were ecstatic to have a geek socializing tool. The reason each group got this impression had to do with the way in which context was created on these systems. Rather than having the context dictated by the environment itself, context emerged through Friends networks. As a result, being socialized into Friendster meant connected to Friends that reinforced the contextual information of early adopters.

The growth of MySpace followed a similar curve. One of the key early adopter groups were hipsters living in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were passionate about indie rock music and many were musicians, promoters, club goers, etc. As MySpace took hold, long before any press was covering the site, MySpace took off amongst 20/30-something urban socializers, musicians, and teenagers. The latter group may not appear obvious, but teenagers are some of the most active music consumers — they follow music culture avidly, even when they are unable to see the bands play live due to age restrictions. As the site grew, the teenagers and 20/30-somethings pretty much left each other alone, although bands bridged these groups. It was not until the site was sold to News Corp. for US$580 million in the summer of 2005 that the press began covering the phenomenon. The massive press helped it grow larger, penetrating those three demographics more deeply but also attracting new populations, namely adults who are interested in teenagers (parents, teachers, pedophiles, marketers).

When context is defined by whom one Friends, and addressing multiple audiences simultaneously complicates all relationships, people must make hard choices. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) highlights this problem in reference to television. In the early 1960s, Stokely Carmichael regularly addressed segregated black and white audiences about the values of Black Power. Depending on his audience, he used very different rhetorical styles. As his popularity grew, he began to attract media attention and was invited to speak on TV and radio. Unfortunately, this was more of a curse than a blessing because the audiences he would reach through these mediums included both black and white communities. With no way to reconcile the two different rhetorical styles, he had to choose. In choosing to maintain his roots in front of white listeners, Carmichael permanently alienated white society from the messages of Black Power.

Notes

10. Friendster originally limited users to 150 Friends. It is no accident that they chose 150, as this is the “Dunbar number.” In his research on gossip and grooming, Robin Dunbar argues that there is a cognitive limit to the number of relations that one can maintain. People can only keep gossip with 150 people at any given time (Dunbar, 1998). By capping Friends at 150, Friendster either misunderstood Dunbar or did not realize that their users were actually connecting to friends from the past with whom they are not currently engaging.

12. Eight was the maximum number of Friends that the system initially let people have. Some users figured out how to hack the system to display more Friends; there are entire bulletin boards dedicated to teaching others how to hack this. Consistently, upping the limit was the number one request that the company received. In the spring of 2006, MySpace launched an ad campaign for X-Men. In return for Friending X-Men, users were given the option to have 12, 16, 20, or 24 Friends in their Top Friends section. Millions of users did exactly that. In late June, this feature was introduced to everyone, regardless of Friending X-Men. While eight is no longer the limit, people move between calling it Top 8 or Top Friends. I will use both terms interchangeably, even when the number of Friends might be greater than eight.

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