Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Stay Out of My Business!

For all of time people have had their own definitions. The meaning of a word like friend is not universal. A friend to me might be someone I call at least five times a week, while you might call that guy you met once in third grade a friend. Before the internet this wasn’t really a problem. However you defined friend was fine by me.

All of a sudden social networking sites came along and friend became a verb.The action part was much more important than the adjective. Everything was cool until Friendster decided to define the social meaning of friend as well. A friend could not be a made up person or object. That, along with incredibly slow service, sunk the site.

Now Facebook seems to be repeating the mistake. They have taken decided that they know what a friend is better than you do. Just read how Mark Zuckerberg told the Facebook community to calm down about the news feed feature: “Facebook is about real connections to actual friends, so the stories coming in are of interest to the people receiving them, since they are significant to the person creating them.”

I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of Facebookers wouldn’t define their Facebook friends as “real connections to actual friends.” How many people do you know with 500 ‘real friends’? Danah Boyd boils it down quite nicely: “The term “friend” in the context of social network sites is not the same as in everyday vernacular. And people know this. This is why they used to say fun things like ‘Well, she’s my Friendster but not my friend.’ (The language doesn’t work out so cleanly on Facebook.) The term is terrible but it means something different on these sites; it’s not to anyone’s advantage to assume that the rules of friendship apply to Friendship.”

This is a case of a platform overstepping its boundaries. For better or for worse, as social networking sites become a larger part of our lives the site itself begins to slide into the background. I feel like a broken record, but people don’t go to Myspace for Myspace, they go for my space. Same with Facebook, this is where people congregate. It’s a virtual town square. Now wouldn’t it make you a little uncomfortable if when you visited your real town square everyone you were given a full readout of everyone else’s exploits?

There’s one more important point to make here, though. I’m probably about to contradict everything I said.

This is not a town square. This is a digital universe. Built into this universe are certain rules and possibilities that simply don’t exist in your grass and gazebo park. All of this information is already out there and there’s a certain feeling of inevitability to the whole thing. The mistake Facebook made was not making news feed available, it was releasing it and making it default. Facebook is a platform, the users are the value, don’t define their world for them.

I guess that wasn’t so contradictory, was it?

September 13, 2006