July 21, 2008

The Talk About Rules for Social Following Is Getting Out of Hand

As the world of online "friends" is getting increasingly blurred, and many of us are joining social network after social network, expanding our realm of friends to mean much more than just those we know in real life, artificial rules of etiquette are being created for when you follow someone or add them as a friend, and when you don't. And when two people have different, unequal rules, there is a potential for conflict, or hurt feelings, even when we have the option to step back and realize this is all very silly. No one hard and fast rule works for everybody, and I would expect that the "rules" are different for each network, given the impact "following" can mean.

This whole ruckus about "You didn't follow me! I'm going to unsubscribe!" led me to playfully suggest a new approach this evening:

(See the FriendFeed response to my Tweet here)

The issue of who to friend started well before social networking sites like Friendster and MySpace took hold, and before Twitter and FriendFeed changed the game in terms of how adding somebody as a friend could open a floodgate of information.

Early demands on who to add as a friend were problematic even in the early days of AOL Instant Messenger. Making my AIM address open to family and close friends was one thing, but soon, casual acquaintances would want my AIM address, and logging on to the service left me at their whim for contacting me, or seeing my status. Soon, I was hiding my service, pretending to be away from the desk, or blocking the very same people who still thought we were AIM friends.

With Friendster, the issue of "friending" again came up. Would I accept the friend request from a college roommate I really wasn't all that fond of? What about if there was a girl I had a crush on, who I wanted to follow, but I didn't want to "friend" in case she figured it out? (Complicated, I know)

Suddenly, the issue of friending became less about wanting to actually follow real friends, or peers, and instead, became an arms race - to get the most followers, to follow the most people, to rise up a leaderboard, or feel some kind of achievement because you could claim a friend as a household name.

There became issues with Facebook only accepting 5,000 friends. Twitter saw people set up rules to auto-follow anyone who followed them, even as it became common to follow thousands or tens of thousands. FriendFeed has seen many do the same, even though to follow a person there means not just Twitter updates, but blogs, photos, videos, and dozens more services, in addition to integrated comments.

Soon, the concept of auto-following, and gaining prominence over following a huge number, or being followed by a big name became the norm. While it might make sense for a Robert Scoble or a Duncan Riley to do it, for the rest of us, the firehose of data can be choking. And by opting out of the automatic following process, we can be called on the carpet for not acting the way others expect us to.

A few key examples:This issue is highlighted by services which show you the disparity between those you follow, and who follows you. For Twitter, there are sites like Twitter Karma and Less Friends, and recently, one was developed for FriendFeed, called FriendVenn. Of note, I've used Twitter Karma to get my lists in sync, but haven't been able to use FriendVenn, as it's limited to 3,000 total connections so far, and I'm ahead of that mark, even if I didn't follow anybody on FriendFeed at all.

There's nothing wrong with seeing the disparity in bulk, rather than on a one by one basis, but it's more of a curiosity than a call to action in my mind.

On Twitter, I used to be quite selective about who I would follow. But over time, thanks to the improvement of Summize and Twitter's frequent downtimes, I'm not using the Web interface to watch Tweets, but only to send notes. Now, there's really zero impact to me to following a bazillion people. If it makes them feel good, then I have no problem adding them to my stream. But in reality, unless they say my name, or a search query I'm watching in TweetDeck, I'll probably never see their updates.

FriendFeed is a different story altogether. FriendFeed's best environment is the Web interface, where you see all updates. A FriendFeed follow is a lot "heavier" than a Twitter follow, as you get all the updates from all the disparate services. This means that while you can casually follow tens of thousands on Twitter, it can be a bit overwhelming to follow even a few hundred on FriendFeed, unless you're absolutely comfortable with missing out on some updates. As a result, I've been a little slower to follow people there, even as my in box on some days can be flooded with new followers.

The way I choose to follow people on FriendFeed was first, people I knew, or engaged with elsewhere, second, following people who engaged in my activity through comments and on the feeds of the others I followed, and third, friends that those I follow engaged with, and whom I shared interests.

This more tentative approach means I have only 300+ people I follow on FriendFeed instead of 3,100 or more. I believe that by adding more and more, the fun and engagement will surely be lost, just as it was on Twitter's Web interface when I added so many people, or in Facebook, where I get new friend requests daily from people I'll probably never meet. I expect there are probably some good 250 to 500 new people who I'll find interesting on FriendFeed who might be following me now, but I want to make that choice after seeing their activity, not just on automatic.

Am I really going to overweight my social networks with ladies? Probably not, as fun as that sounds. But am I going to overweight every network with every single follower I possibly can, again, probably not. The way I use Twitter and FriendFeed or Facebook or LinkedIn or any other service that relies so heavily on connections is the way that I do it, period. It's not necessarily the way you should do it, and no one right way is right for all people. But if there is a point where I'm not following you, and you are following me, it's probably not personal, and it shouldn't be made personal. To each their own.