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A world wide web of friends

Tuesday, 2 October 2007 — by

So there’s friends and then there are acquaintances — people we happen upon, usually in passing. Then there are allies — people who stand by us through thick & thin and who we really want in our corner. But the way that most websites work, there’s usually just friends, and that’s about as detailed as the deal gets. But I want more and I also want less, too…

You see, I have these rules that I lay up the side of person while they’re not looking. If they don’t measure up, they’re not a friend. They’re just an acquaintance and nothing more.

And sometimes, there are people who have immeasurable qualities, who stand apart from others. To be found standing proud, ready to be counted while other sit silently, staring at their feet.

However, when I’m on StumbleUpon or Digg, there’s no way for me to add or remove weight from these people. All I get to do is call them a friend.

I’ve been thinking about this question for some time. And then Dennis Plucinik went and asked the question: “What does a ‘friend’ really mean on-line?”:

“On MySpace for instance, a ‘friend’ usually is someone you really know – at least that’s the intention of their design. At least out of the people in your top friends you’re more likely to actually know and be close friends with them than on any other social networking site (Facebook is similar on this).

In other services such as Blogcatalog, Digg, Stumbleupon, etc. the friend feature isn’t so much geared towards encouraging a real human social relationship with other members rather it serves as a sort of filter through which you can view your content.”

It’s a good read, and it’s thought-provoking stuff, too. Enough of an impetus to get me to write my own thoughts out, which do mirror those of Dennis in some way.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my friend

The closest thing I’ve seen to a working model of applying a weighting to friends is on MyBlogLog. When you add someone as a Contact, you get to choose from a number of options: Username is my contact, Username is my friend, Username is my family, I’m a fan of Username.

Which is great, but after making your selection, that’s the last you’re going to see of those options. Never to be made use of again.

And then there’s Xing and Facebook, both of which allow you to share a limited or full access to your profile, including contacts.

Now, I for one would rather not just just hand out all of my details to just anyone. But conversely, I do want to allow greater access to known contacts.

Having some way of choosing how to classify a friend, or indeed an acquaintance is something I think we’re going to see more of, as we edge toward the Semantic Web, a topic I’ve covered in three parts recently.

It’s also an extension to my on-going thought experiments with a more social and usable web, covered in various parts over the last few months.

More and more of my time is being spent right here on the web. Business is being done by some, while elsewhere, friendships and partnerships are being forged all of the time.

The problem with the web (in its entirety, in terms of content and services) is that it’s not something that can be fully comprehended on a human scale.

So what we must do is pull apart those aspects of the web that are most closely aligned to our ways of thinking, working and socializing and make them comprehensible and of a scale we can manage.

But to do this, to manage this seething mass of information, more often than not, those many-eyed “active filters” are our friends, colleagues, family and loved ones.

Can we rely on mere people? After all, isn’t there meant to be some newfangled automated way of doing this?

Yes, we can trust people. It’s still OK to do that. That’s what friends are for…

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