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10 November 2008

Social networks & identity, or how do we know they're our friends?

Some things never change.  When human beings form into groups we want to ascertain who is friend and who is foe.  We want to know who we can trust and to what extent we can trust them.  

However, until recently, face-to-face meetings were part of this assessment process.  And close physical proximity tended to mediate relationships for most of us.

But now we face the challenge of determining who people are and if they are our friends. And today this process is often mediated only by online channels.

The primary problem is identity - are they who they say they are?  The secondary problem is authenticity - are they being real or assuming a different persona, and can I rely upon that persona?  The tertiary problem is how to know and possibly to reference the varying degrees of relationship.

These problems have been subject of much discussion between myself and friends or colleagues over the past few years - both in real life and online.  Our answers to the first two problems tend to come down to the fact that over time it is hard to maintain an alternate persona or identity and to keep it consistent.  Thus sock puppets are usually uncovered due to inconsistency or they lose interest and fade away.  Over time as you interact with someone they tend to reveal themselves in various ways and to demonstrate consistent patterns of thought, conversation and behaviour.  There are also a number of identity management initiatives under way, such as OpenID.

The the third question is one to which there seems to be no easy answer.  One possible solution is a representational approach as outlined in the XFN™ or XHTML Friends Network. This is described as "a simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks".  But I'm not certain that merely representing the relationships actually helps us to know people any better. Nor am I certain that representing these relationships in a hierarchical classification will actually improve those relationships.

I have no answer to this last question and am interested to hear other opinions.

Some other people who've considered this topic recently :

Is a Social Media Friend Really a Friend?
Be a Real Friend to Your Social Networking "Friends"

By Carruthers via Aide-mémoire

2 comments:

MZ said...

Lovely post!! the topic you are discussing is very real, and this has to do with the dunbar circle, as humans we have the capacity to deeply engage with about 150 other beings and these will vary in degrees and intensity of connections, it is also coupled with proximity, I personally am not very good at the online relationship as I spend less time online than your good self and I am less attracted to the screen than I am to people. The idea of knowing if a friend is a friend is as you have already pointed out, consistent interaction and reliability of simpatico, this is a little harder to achieve online but is still possible providing both parties are actually honest, the face icons eg ;-) are required so that the reader can "get" that one is joking, other wise flame wars happen and this occurs because as we stare at the screen, we do not get the physical cues from the person we are having the discussion with and even more importantly, the others in the group.
Interestingly it is "peer group pressure" applied by feeling others reactions to conversations that keeps many of us more steady and thoughtful in conversation, then there are others who do not get physical and facial cues, they tend to be drawn to the online world so that they feel more comfortable with the rules that say if you are joking, do this ;-).
Ok, so that was my 10 cents (used to be 2 but, you know, the rapid decline of the AUD is taking its toll :-)

Be well and happy, live love and laugh - Headwellred

Neerav Bhatt said...

As in real life I have different gradations of "online friends"

I count online people as closer friends if I meet them in person on at least a semi-regular basis