November 13, 2006
Friendbombing and the Confusing World of Social Networking

John Schwartz has a great piece from the Nov. 5 New York Times. Schwartz, who works for the Times, realized that his children were using Facebook and other social networking sites for the majority of their communication and, since Facebook in particular is insular, he signed up to be a user in order to view his son's page. His justification? "Now, I wouldn't read my kid's locked diary. But if Sammy is going to put his daily thoughts out there for the world to see, I'm going to check in every once in a while -- and let him know that I'm doing it, too."

John signed up with a corporate account now that Facebook offers services to those with corporate e-mails, but his son soon proved to have an adept response at his father's intrusion after John sent his son a friend invitation. John Schwartz was "friendbombed."

Apparently, Sam contacted all his friends at school and asked them to invite his dad as a friend, to the tune of more than 100 teenagers from the community. While his wife considers it poetic justice and John worries other parents will link him to the recent Mark Foley scandal, he sums up his feels about Facebook like this:

Facebook's use of the word "friend" is a little troubling in a world where true friendship is hard to find and even harder to sustain. The idea of getting friends wholesale seems to be part of that element of the Internet that can render life virtual and a little pallid. In many ways, the Internet strengthens relationships by allowing easy communication over a distance. But without a human touch, it's hard to keep the conversation going beyond niceties. Facebook seems to be saying: "Sure, we might be seeing less of our real friends face to face. But we'll make it up with volume."

I think John's touched on a fundamental distinction in social networking communities in general. It's not completely true that the point of the game is to get as many friends as possible. Although LinkedIn may reward you for doing so and there is value in gaining a certain number of friendships in any social network, there is also a heavy backlash against people who have thousands of friends (unless, of course, it's a celebrity with a MySpace page, although your exclusivity of being friends with these people is lost somewhere past the 5,000 mark).

It reminds me of MySpace's recent weakness in particular, when they became ambivalent about the Top 8 and started offering alternatives. I guess they felt that people were getting too stressed out picking their Top 8 friends. I personally liked that distinction, but now a lot of my friends have switched to a Top 20. I'll have to say, I could understand when I didn't make their Top 8, but when it moves to half their friends being in the "top" list, it hurts a little more not to make the cut.

There's something to be said about exclusivity...