Why I’m Keeping Facebook a Friends-Only Affair

rejectedAlong with the shocking number of Mafia Wars invites I get on Facebook, I continue to get daily friend requests from people I have never met or had any contact with. Almost all of these invites have a similar personalized message attached…

“We’re already friends on [some other social network]“… so let’s be Facebook Friends!”

If you’ve sent me a connection request in the past and you’ve never gotten that “Steffan has accepted your friend request” notification back, please don’t take it personally. If I don’t know you well, you’ll have to settle for Twitter, FriendFeed, my Youtube or Vimeo account, my blog or (gasp!) email…I’m keeping Facebook a friends-only affair. Here’s the logic behind my “True Friends Only” rule for Facebook…

Keeping Interaction Meaningful and Personal

I’ll admit that I’m a promiscuous linker on most public social networks. I auto-follow back anyone who wants to follow me on Twitter (so I can DM) and follow large targeted groups of people on FriendFeed to listen to industry news etc, but Facebook is the only place where every single person I’m connected to, I know well. The fact that I have a personal connection to every face I see when I log on to Facebook makes the experience much more interesting and meaningful. I’ve got around 700 people from my life I’m connected to on Facebook – all my family members, hundreds of people I went to school or worked with, friends I’ve had experiences with, people whose blogs I’ve been following and commenting on for years – these are deep relationships I’ve developed over time, and so news, photos and thoughts I read from these people have personal significance to me. Having a place where I can maintain those relationships and keep the interaction meaningful keeps my time in Facebook fun, personal and interesting – and that’s what separates it from all the other platforms out there for me.

Public-ness vs. Private-ness: How Safe Space Changes What We Share And How We Behave

I wrote a lengthy post back in March called Status Culture – Public vs Private and Why It Matters where I go into detail about the differences between how relationships are structured on Twitter vs. Facebook and how it changes interaction patterns and norms. If you’re interested in the technical aspects of community building and interaction you may enjoy the post –  it’s one of the most popular articles on this blog. For the rest of you – here are the main arguments from the post that relate to this discussion -

Having (the perception of) private space changes the game, no question.  Creating “trusted space” is not just about you, it’s about the perception your entire community has about the shared space (your wall, tagged photos etc). Having a place where my family and friends feel ok to be themselves and share personal elements of their lives is important. They don’t want random people I met on the internet being able to join in their discussions on my wall, or see photos I’ve tagged of them at a private event etc. Many of them wouldn’t dare use Twitter for it’s public-ness for that very reason, but they’re hyperactive Facebook users. The point is, when everyone assumes you’re actively controlling who sees what, the perception of what’s acceptable changes for your community, and with that shift in perception, who interacts and how often the do etc. changes in significant ways. By limiting my connections to just people I know, I create a space where the people I care about can share themselves without fear of the unwanted gaze of unfamiliar third parties.

Lest Ye Not Forget The Spam Problem

This one’s a no brainer. Most of the unknowns who solicit you for connections on Facebook (or any other social platform for that matter) care more about pushing their content on you than getting to know you better. Getting you to accept their friend request is just another way for them to promote themselves. Don’t let em’ in, and you’ll never have to roll your eyes when you start getting spammy messages from Johnny Life Coach.

The Accessibility and Portability Of Your True Social Graph Will Become Increasingly Important

This is a biggie. It’s crucial to realize where the social web is heading and how your social experiences are going to be stitched together in the future. Being choosy about your relationships doesn’t matter as much now as it will. Social networking is still in its infancy and many analysts believe that in just a few years, we’ll be carrying our social graphs with us wherever we go on the web (your graph, your data, everything). Social colonization (the next phase of the social web) is already starting to surface with technologies like open ID, and Facebook is priming itself to be a hub with Facebook Connect. There will likely be a day when you’ll be glad you were discerning about the way you created your relationships on social platforms like Facebook because they will define you and shape your experience more and more as the technology evolves.

Discussion Time…

Now that I’ve provided my thoughts, I’d like to hear yours. I know a lot of my friends and many successful bloggers do exactly the opposite to what I’m doing, and they have their reasons. I’m curious to hear other points of view on any of this. How important is protecting your true social graph to you?

22 Comments

  1. September 11, 2009 at 1:34 am ·

    I suppose that to me it seems that it really depends how you use your Facebook and other networks' accounts. From that perspective we seem to agree, your logic makes perfect sense for your use case and you recognize that others may have different intentions which require other methods.

    Right on the numbers.

    So, you are asking what others' use cases are which lead them to behave differently? My mother has Facebook now, I use it to keep in contact with people I know (or used to know) and people I meet, and even to meet new people. I have my friends list organized and “permissions” set allowing me to leverage many levels of Facebook functionality. As such, I don't go around “looking” for new Facebook connections, but I'll accept just about anyone that could possibly have a legitimate reason to want to connect with me. From there I will remove or even block people as necessary based on their actions.

    P.S. I'll be around that way next month — let's try for round 2.

    • September 11, 2009 at 9:58 am ·

      I'm absolutely asking about other people's use cases. I want to know what
      strategies are working for others who see Facebook as more of a public
      facing platform especially. You can see Facebook starting to make a
      “go-public” push. In particular the addition of @mentions/tagging that
      Facebook is now implementing implies and intended shift from it's current
      role as a private-strong relationship space to one that more closely
      resembles platforms like Twitter or Friendfeed (which they just bought).
      Chris Brogan has been talking about the value of Facebook lists (like
      FriendFeed groups) and how it makes following groups easy, as well as
      accepting anyone but offering only a limited profile display, so I wonder
      whether I should be adjusting my usage and strategies. I never use Facebook
      to find new friends, but maybe it makes sense. Still, the protecting that
      social graph seems incredibly important to me. The reciprocal nature of the
      way relationships are set up is key. Any insights?

      • September 11, 2009 at 2:12 pm ·

        It's a complicated question, “What do you want out of it?” Or perhaps you're wondering if you could possibly leverage Facebook's features to get more out of it. Either way, it falls back to a matter of preference. It's much simpler to have one set of “permissions” for Facebook and not have to sort friends and whatnot. Of course if you don't sort anything, having a massive friends list is terribly unmanageable — that's why TweetDeck and other similar tools are so useful. I've seen people trying to accumulate “friends” for no purpose whatsoever and even going as far as creating a new Facebook account simply because the majority of its viewers will be “non-friends” (privacy). Those perspectives are silly and counterproductive IMO (yes, I said “silly”); at least someone that is trying to promote themselves has a reason. It would be possible for a service like Facebook to give users the power to do “whatever they want” but they still have quite a ways to go. Despite adding things like @mentions and tagging, for example, there is still a limit (5000) to the number of “friends” one is able to have before being forced to convert their account to a “celebrity” profile where you no longer have to reciprocate (basically the same as following and not as innovative).

        There is quite a bit of configurability in the Facebook environment that is far too much work for most people to want to handle or employ it. Nobody wants to have to be the sysadmin for their Facebook profile.

        Taking advantage of some available Facebook applications can help you accomplish some of these things, i.e., meeting new people, having discussions, sharing/learning/storing information, or even dating (heck, why not?). Unfortunately again, there is a problem because most Facebook applications are not much more than “time wasters” and spam. Sifting through garbage to find something useful is only worse because most applications require or try to get you to recommend their application to others before you're allowed to use it — there is no way to logically evaluate the tools and useful invites that I receive are indistinguishable from pointless ones. You and I have discussed this before, but I certainly am not willing to recommend something to someone else before I've decided that/how it's useful let alone if I've never tried, used, or even heard of it. It's all backwards and there is a sea of unintelligible insanity.

        However, I could go into my preferences and turn off the permissions for these applications to post to my or my friends' walls (at least from me). New talks that they are trying to create a more public environment will only ever be façade without a good implementation–this implementation had better not take away the features their users have grown to like. Some of the things that make it a more public or hybrid network are actually possible to do but remain impractical as long as the burdens fall on the user. Correct me if I'm wrong. The real question is this: “Does adding @mentions and the ability to tag make it a viable public or hybrid network?” The answer is “no”.

        You can create a network where the community decides how to use the network. You can create a network where you decide how the community uses it. You can't do both at the same time, especially when the two don't agree.

        • September 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm ·

          I think you're right, certainly about the some of the idiosyncrasies of the
          application ecosystem. Great points made. In particular:

          The real question is this: “Does adding @mentions and the ability to tag
          make it a viable public or hybrid network?” The answer is “no”.

          Totally.

          “New talks that they are trying to create a more public environment will
          only ever be façade without a good implementation–this implementation had
          better not take away the features their users have grown to like.”

          Again, yes. Fraser said it well – it's about the DNA.

  2. September 11, 2009 at 6:56 am ·

    Maybe it's due to Facebook's dna as a service for real friends. Or maybe it's the privacy perception that results in friend's sharing more openly than anywhere else online.

    Whatever it is, I'm firmly in your camp. Facebook is a service that is a friends-only affair.

    I follow people haphazardly on Twitter and other social networks. But I always give thought to accepting a friend request on FB.

    If Facebook is pushing to be a more open and public service, where will that social graph be 12 – 18 months from now?

    • September 11, 2009 at 10:01 am ·

      See, that last line is exactly what I'm stuck on. If the features and
      functionality push us further into public…what then? You can see Facebook
      starting to make a “go-public” push. See my previous comment in reply to
      Matt – this is exactly what I'm talking about. Thoughts?

  3. JeffHurt
    September 11, 2009 at 8:18 am ·

    Steffan:

    I have to admit I've not been as prolific with my Facebook account as I once was. I post a lot more in other places and I've found that I've started reflecting more by commenting on people's blogs.

    I think you hit it on the head for me when you said that people you connect with on Facebook are “friends I’ve had experiences with, people whose blogs I’ve been following and commenting on for years – these are deep relationships I’ve developed over time.”

    That's what it's really about for me; connecting with people I've had some type of experience with in the past.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • September 11, 2009 at 10:22 am ·

      Jeff – Actually, following friends' blogs is a great way to build
      relationships – it's one of the best ways IMO. Unfortunately, the vast
      majority of my good friends don't blog. Facebook is their only real online
      profile that they check and update regularly. I got lucky with age and
      timing – I and a lot of my good friends were at graduate school when
      facebook was first launched. I've been using it consistently since 2004, so
      most of my friends on there are very active and have incorporated it into
      their lifestyles over time, but yes, keeping up with people who mean
      something to me makes the activity so much more rewarding – and I think it's
      like that for most people. I think if Facebook tries to go too public too
      fast, it'll change the conditions that are driving people to the site in the
      first place.

  4. karintaylor
    September 11, 2009 at 8:29 am ·

    Stefan,

    We are friends on Twitter, as you once wrote about Avocent – whom I was doing PR for at the time, and because you live in my hometown – San Diego. It seemed you were well-connected and that your “trend watching” would be valuable to me. So, that works for me. I agree Facebook is for those I know – for me they fall into two camps – friends and family, and “people I met through work.” Since I post photos of my kids, etc, Facebook is very personal to me as well. LinkedIn and Plaxo are “work-only” – and I refuse to accept the offer from Plaxo to “link to Facebook.” That's just weird. Karin

    • September 11, 2009 at 10:08 am ·

      Karin – Exactly. I also follow people from all over San Diego on Twitter – I
      use it more to listen to what's going on in the community and to learn and
      share information. Facebook is a totally different platform, for a totally
      different purpose. Now, that said, I also connect with people on Facebook
      that I have met, gotten to know and have build a relationship with that
      started on Twitter (and led to me following their blogs, meeting offline
      etc). The key is that there's an established relationship there.

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  7. scottsb
    September 15, 2009 at 11:10 am ·

    Absolutely agreed. Facebook's design (with its broad amount of personal information) lends itself best to personal relationships rather than mere acquaintances.

    • September 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm ·

      Scott – It's like Fraser said. It's what's built into Facebook's DNA.

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  11. Rob
    October 25, 2009 at 8:29 pm ·

    I found your article while researching a related question, and I have to agree with your take on it. Just as you would automatically avoid anyone whose sole interaction with you in person was to rabidly promote themselves, I shun anyone whose sole involvement in the online social networks is to push their personal brand, promote their column, or try to help you add to a number they can brag about on their resume. You wouldn't have anything to do with such a shameless user in real life, why would you countenance one online in a social forum supposedly designed to connect actual friends? Nice piece.

    • October 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm ·

      Rob – Exactly. People who are on social media to push are completely missing
      the point and missing a huge opportunity to create connections, add value
      and build relationships.

  12. October 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm ·

    i find that i enjoy using facebook a lot more when everything i see relates to someone that i care about, when i look at someone's update and i think “i don't give a damn about what they did today” then i remove them from my facebook

  13. October 26, 2009 at 7:03 pm ·

    Rob – Exactly. People who are on social media to push are completely missing
    the point and missing a huge opportunity to create connections, add value
    and build relationships.

  14. October 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm ·

    i find that i enjoy using facebook a lot more when everything i see relates to someone that i care about, when i look at someone's update and i think “i don't give a damn about what they did today” then i remove them from my facebook