Episode Ten: My Followers, Friends and Social Objects

by danhon

1. Followers and Friends

It feels like there was a fork in the road a few years back (somewhere between, say, ten and five years ago) where one bunch of people building stuff gravitated around the word *friend* and another bunch of people gravitated around the word *follower*. And then, poof, ten years later, we have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and Google Plus and and and.

Words mean things. Okay, that’s a cheating sentence, a trite one, but hear me out.

A lot of the criticism that Facebook gets – and if you want [citation needed], you’re not going to get one, because my day job is increasingly being taken up by thinking about Facebook – is around the whole Friend thing. The fact that people have around 150-300 Facebook “friends”, but what they do is that they put square quotes around the word like I just did because they’re differentiating from a “friend friend” and a Facebook friend.

With that Friendiness, though, comes the baggage and the connotations and the intent that correspondingly doesn’t come with a word like Follower. And if you’re the kind of person who’s been keeping up with the work of people like danah boyd[1] over the years, or you’re the kind of person who knows that the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium[2] happens then none of this is going to be news. But it’s fascinating coming back to it and seeing it happen on such a large scale, affecting so many people.

Because this is my newsletter, I get to just reckon all over the place: people don’t like to think that an algorithm is interfering (however benevolently!) in a relationship they have with a friend – even if that friend may only be a Facebook friend! The word counts. However, an algorithm can, in a way, interfere all it wants with someone I’m following, because you’re describing what almost feels like an algorithmic relationship to begin with. There’s a mapping, without the baggage of friendship, in the word following. Being a friend comes with so many social obligations and minutiae of etiquette that you may not feel like you want an algorithmically mediated friendship – even if that algorithm is transparent and understandable (good luck with the latter, in this day and age).

In contrast, the algorithm that mediates a follower relationship is simple, and feels like it should be transparent and understandable: X follows Y, X sees all that Y sends. There shouldn’t be an obfuscation stage in a follower relationship, and one isn’t expected.

On the one hand it feels like there’s the technocratic belief that the algorithm can solve all that’s interesting here when we talk about navigating relationships that are bucketed under the word ‘friend’. On the other, if I’m being uncharitable, it feels like growth-hackers are glomming on to the word ‘friend’ as a way to ensure that their startup spreads and “goes viral”. Kevin Slavin’s tumblr has a fantastic nugget of a thought[3] on the word and how it’s being used in the new explosion of mobile/social/communications apps like secret and whisper – I particularly like this quote: “a halfass compromise between anonymity and conventional social graphs”. The wonderful thing about something like chatroulette was that it connected you in a very easy to understand way to a mass of humanity where they didn’t even have to use that damned word. Slavin’s right: anonymity and the gap between it and the conventional social graph is a stupendously rich one that can be explored, and is explored in products (ugh, I hate that word) like Tumblr without having to deal with all the friend baggage.

If you haven’t read Snapchat’s CEO’s “AXS Partner Summit Keynote”[4], then let me pull out the most salient (and, in someways, really fucking obvious, but perhaps needs to be underlined because it’s actually happening now) point: the internet is everywhere now. One of the things that characterised web 2.0 aside from all that AJAXy stuff was the notion of the social object, and no more was that apparent than the amazing work done with the early stages of building Flickr: being able to see the photograph as a social object and artifact that people were able to gather around *online* was an important step forward when *online was another place*. And for the natives among us who were perhaps a little bit too wired and found our friends and significant others through the medium of TCP/IP packets, maybe we were a little too ahead of the curve by not thinking of the internet as another place, because now, thanks to mobile, the internet isn’t another place. It just is. There. Everywhere.

What Snapchat’s CEO is saying is this: your old model of social objects is over, or at least evolved. There is no *this thing happened*, and then I create a digital artifact of it and then we congregate around that object. Instead the behaviour that’s now posited is: the digital social object is the artifact itself. It exists in the real world. It is not another place. The thesis is that social activity pre-Snapchat for the masses was talking on the internet about things happening off it (and the emphasis that I would add here is that may well have been true for the majority, or mass audience, and why it doesn’t feel true for the rest of us who’ve been hanging out in Usenet and IRC since, well, we know what Usenet and IRC are).

But thanks to mobile and Moore’s law and ubiquitous (western world) internet connectivity (for the privileged audience of people who have internet connectivity, and yes, I realise that we’re excluding the not-wired/non-connected), this reflection doesn’t exist anymore. And maybe it *is* because of the computer in your pocket, so that what happens on LiveJournal doesn’t stay on LiveJournal because it’s with you the whole day now, just a fingertip away.

Anyway. That’s today’s ramble. And my facetious application to be invited to next year’s SCS.


[1] http://www.danah.org
[2] http://scs.fuselabs.org
[3] http://slavin.tumblr.com/post/75702422631/im-hating-secret-in-ways-i-havent-hated
[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/202195145/2014-AXS-Partner-Summit-Keynote