Get the newsletter · Featured · Recent

Does Facebook reflect your true friendships? How about e-mail?

Fakesters versus Friends on social networks
On the social networks Facebook/MySpace/Friendster, one topic that people often discuss is "fake friends" or Fakesters. Another interesting, and more nuanced discussion is, "How well do you have to know someone to be Facebook friends with them?" And yet another is people complaining that you’re not *really* friends with people on social networks, you’re just "MySpace friends."

Furthermore, there’s recently been a lot of discussion of e-mail, and how you might be able to leverage your inbox as the foundation of a social networking application. Here’s a blog post by Don Dodge from Microsoft, a NY Times article on "inbox 2.0," GigaOm, and also Mashable. There’s absolutely some really interesting data contained inside your e-mail inbox, especially for the older folks that prefer e-mail over other means (texting, IM, social networks, etc.), and as a result, the data will absolutely be an asset.

Really, this discussion is about a bunch of very fundamental issues:

  • What does it really mean to be "friends" with someone?
  • What are the dimensions for measuring and representing that relationship?
  • How do you represent more complex dynamics, like grouping, subgroups, personal identities, etc?

These are very hard problems, which I will not attempt to solve in
this blog post ;-) Needless to say, these are very complex and subtle
issues, which are not likely to resolved perfectly, ever.

But either way, the $64,000 question is:

Who has the best access to the "right" kind of data to solve this problem?

Is it e-mail? Is it Facebook? Is it the wireless carriers? Who is it?

To give some perspective to this problem – let me take you through the life of a person’s social relationships

(more post below)

The life and times of social relationships
As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been interviewing random people at different life stages (high school, college, and work) in order to better understand social networks and in particular Facebook. If you haven’t read the post, I’d encourage you to: Why your friends list gets polluted over time.

The core of the interviews has been a process in which I ask them the following:

  1. Draw me a diagram showing everyone in your life
  2. Group them based on whatever makes sense to you
  3. Describe how you interact with each group

I’ve talked to about a dozen+half different people so far, and the data has been very interesting – definitely relevant to the e-mail vs Facebook social network debate. In general, there are some very strong patterns, which I’ll cover below, but of course it’s always the exceptions that are the most interesting.

OK, let’s start aaaaalll the way from the beginning. Well, your social relationships when you are first born are very simple:

That’s right, all you have is your mom ;-)

But then, as you grow up, you start to get to know the people around you, like your immediate family:

And for years, that’s all you have. Then one day, you’ll start going to school, and then your social network gets a whole lot bigger, really fast:

All of a sudden, you have a bunch of other kids around you – you make friends with a lot of them, and see a pretty consistent group every day, so you all bond pretty well. Of course, this doesn’t last, because you grow up, and eventually you’re in high school, which has more kids, more complex subgroups, and it may be that only a certain group of your friends from grade/middle school come with you into high school:

In the picture above, the blue squares continue to be people who you interact with frequently, and the gray ones are acquaintances – people you saw every day before, but who you’ve lost touch with. At this point, your entire group of friends/acquaintances/etc may go from a nice big number (like 30) down to a couple besties aka BFF aka best friends forever that you still talk to.

I adjusted the parents down to small squares to reflect the teenage angst that drives kids away from their loving moms and dads ;-)

In high school, you inherit a new, large social network, who are now the most important people in the world to you…

… until college:

Then yet again, you inherit a large group of college friends, including people that were potentially in your high school (but really, it’s quite unlikely). In addition, your group of friends from middle school and high school shrink down, so that you really have a couple.

Because you moved away for college, you never play fetch with Fido, your family dog, except around the holidays :-(

Then, once you graduate from college, you go through the same transitions – first with work, and then a new location:

In the above diagram, you’re moving to a new city after you graduate, and you get a bunch of friends from your new job (yay!) and from the new city you’re living in. Also, one of your old high school friends joins you in the new city.

Then a couple years later, maybe you switch jobs, your dog dies, but your sister moves into your new city:

… and the social network grows on.

Growth and staleness in social relationships
From the diagrams above, you’ve probably already drawn some conclusions, including the idea that:

  • Each time you go to a new school, or geography, or workplace, you quickly inherit a large disjoint set of relationships that causes your social network to grow very fast
  • However, each new "move" makes your previous relationships become stale quickly as well
  • The absolute # of relationships grows quickly, but the actual # of people you might consider friends either grows quickly (at the beginning of your life), and eventually reaches a cap (maybe the Dunbar number) later in your life
  • Between the different social networks you move through, there’s always a little bit of intermixing – that is, middle school friends that join you in high school, or high school friends that go to the same college, or any of the aforementioned groups that end up in the same city as you
  • As a result of the intermixing, a person’s social network is actually complex – they might be BOTH local friends and a middle school friend, or a work friend and a college buddy. Or maybe it was someone who you dropped off with after high school, but ended up getting reacquainted with in college
  • The # of "stale" relationships increases very quickly relative to the actual # of friendships in your network

This discussion ought to also include the ramifications of dating someone seriously and inheriting their social network as well, but I didn’t pry too much into the lives of my interviewees ;-)

The point is, most social networks and your e-mail addressbook allow you to list out your friends, but really you need some more dimensions than that to capture the reality of that relationship, including:

  • A notion of an "active" friend versus a "stale" friend, which is a time dimension
  • Another might be the actual strength of those relationships, because you might be active with someone at work, but not be very good friends with them
  • Similarly, friendships need to have some grouping to them, but they can’t be exclusive groups – instead, what group someone is might be fluid or encompass multiple definitions
  • Yet another subtlety is the professional versus personal distinction, and the social protocols that come into those interactions based on the groupings

Once you add in attractive people you’re stalking, or your-significant-others’-friends-who-would-leave-you-if-you-broke-up, and this thing becomes complicated very quickly. Furthermore, users aren’t going to want to fill in all this information – they are going to do something coarser and simpler, like creating multiple accounts. That’s why people have multiple e-mail addresses, to segment their personal lives.

As a result, it’s probably also important to collect all these nuances as passively as possible – if you don’t, then you’re going to make the process of managing these relationships very tedious. Your social network then becomes as fun as a CRM system.

How does this pertain to email versus Facebook?
To return to the original question, does e-mail have the best representation of your true relationships? Or does Facebook? Or does someone else?

My personal opinion from this discussion is that actually *no one* has all the right data yet. The reason is that people choose to communicate to through many different means – some through phone, some through e-mail, and some through social networks. Each communication method means a slightly different thing.

The group of people that I’d call is much smaller than the one that I’d e-mail. The more ways I’ll try to get in touch with someone, the closer I am to them. Trying to say that the most active friends can be measured by e-mail or Facebook ignores the fact that maybe I see someone every day at school, and thus prefer in-person with them.

Until wireless data, e-mail, social networks, VOIP, and all the other data lives in one place, it’ll be hard for any one provider to figure out who’s closer to whom in as nuanced or holistic of a way as people will want. As a result, it’s my opinion that most users will select "best of breed" options at every level of communication, and use them to segment off their complex relationships.

(That is, until Google buys a wireless carrier, Facebook, and everything else on the planet)


PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.