Many moons, ago when Flickr first introduced the ability to categorise some people as “friends”, David Weinberger wrote about the issues use of the word gave him and how he felt disinclined to categorise people using a word that was so difficult to define. At the time I followed his lead and only had contacts in Flickr. But then I wanted some photos to only be seen by some contacts and not others …..

It is always interesting watching Robert Scoble “manage” the number of people he connects with within social tools, which for those of you who don’t know Robert numbers in tens of thousands. He just followed me from his new second Twitter identity “notsecretscoble” which he is using to subdivide the people who connect with him. He has opened it up so anyone can follow this new account but he will only follow people he has met face-to-face. I have the same sort of gradations of connections with people I know and manage the distinctions with things like Friendfeed and subgroups within Google Reader.

Why bother?

It relates to the Dunbar number – “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships” of 150. Tools like Twitter and contact databases allow us to extend this number by making it easier to “remember” more people and track how and where we met and what sort of relationship we have with them. I use Daylite as a contact manager for keeping track of my business relationships, which now number thousands, and when I scan through Daylite I “know” all of them. At the same time I don’t “know” anything like all of the people who follow me on Twitter.

It is the classic problem of signal to noise. If I do nothing the number of people I end up knowing just causes noise in my life, if I put in a little bit of effort I can increase the signal to noise. A lot of this is about energy for me – how much certain people make me feel energised and engaged and how much energy I feel incilned to put into the relationships. This has long been the case with a relatively small group of wonderful blogger friends I know and now even within the business subset of people I know I group them by how much of a buzz working with them gives me. The basis for these judgements vary all of the time and are far from hard and fast rules but are they really that different from the judgements we all make about who to become closer to in the “real” world?

7 thoughts on “Friendship

  1. Timely and thoughtful post, Euan. Been thinking about this a lot myself, especially as so many people talk about their "numbers" on various social networking sites. Ugh !Given the business I am in, I belong to a large number of networking sites. Here are some of my rules for the most visible sites I belong to:LinkedIn – almost exclusively I link to people I have met and who I have a common business interest with (or history of working with them). Facebook – I will only link to people I have met (with a notable exception of about a dozen people who were either recommended to me by someone I know well and trust, or have a strong common business interest). My main reason for using this site is social – to have fun sharing stuff with my far-flung family and friends.Twitter – I don’t know personally many of the people I follow on Twitter. I’ll (selectively) follow anyone who catches my interest / tweets a URL that I like, as well as friends and people who’s work I respect e.g. @euan Selectiveness means that I keep this number down to about a max of 300-400 so I can monitor what they are saying – something that is impossible when you follow thousands.I regularly block porn sites, spammers and people trying to sell me software (especially KM software) and unfollow people who’s Tweets flood and dominate my stream e.g. Scobler (some great stuff in there but the volume turned it into noise).Only half-heartedly use FriendFeed….etc. etc. You get the picture.The people I really pay attention to are the ones who create a "buzz" for me – usually via their blog posts or TwitterPS Was impressed when you showed me Daylite but still not using it myself. Maybe if I ever have to deal with the amount of people you do….


  2. Euan – this is something I’ve considered as well. It’s funny you refer to Robert Scoble, as I do as well. In Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number, I take the popint of view that ultimately we will track many more than our Dunbar’s Number of connections. I don’t say we eliminate the closer connections that define Dunbar (~150). That’s our core.But the tools we have available now make it possible to expand our ability to follow others. To be sure, this following is not nearly at the intimate level of the Dunbar connections. Rather, we tend to intersect periodically with those that go beyond our ability to follow regularly. Coincidences of timing and topic relevance define these connections. With a close connection, you may be aware of everything, from their professional interests to the fact their car needs to be serviced. With connections beyond Dunbar, it’s a bit more random.How to do this? In a follow-up post, The Serendipity of Attention, I talk about the mentality and tools of the trade for managing at "Scoble’s Number". For me, FriendFeed is an important part of that.The regular interactions occur within Dunbar’s Number. But there’s too much going on in the world to ignore everyone else.


  3. For me there are friends and then there are friends.In my opinion you never really know if someone is a ‘friend" until you’ve been through some kind of rough patch with them or them with you. If the two of you can get past it, the relationship deepens, you actually get to know more at a deeper level about them .. and about yourself. The bond strengthens, or the bond withers, dissolves (whatever is the appropriate term for less of).Friends in the hundreds, or thousands, whom you know by a couple of meetings, or from reading or reputation, and whom you (may) interact with on a subject of mutual interest are effectively data points or data sources in an interconnected Web, or in a perhaps more human sense, acquaintances with whom there is something in common.It takes interaction where who you are and who they are to expose itself to begin and sustain the process of becoming friends, from my perspective or in my life.I am relatively unhappy (maybe a better term is dissatisfied ?) with the notion of hyperlinked connections to names, photos, profiles and opinions as making up what is called a ‘friend’. I guess I am old-fashioned. I’m perfectly happy to have hundreds of acquaintances with whom I happen to have some interest, opinions or perspectives in common, and I even manage to interact with once in a while (and also keep track of most of them) but I only call them friends in the context of the virtual space we call the Web.My more real friends are people with whom I have gotten into things with (and with some of them that has happened on the Web, so I am not saying that I am excluding the possibility of building real and ongoing friendships mainly on or with the Web) and both of us have come out the other side still liking and appreciating each other.


  4. A couple of weeks ago I was at a wedding of an old school friend. It was a fantastic day and a great opportunity to catch-up with old friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while…probably far too long! It reminded me that keeping up friendships takes work, just as you’ve said here. A few pints at the bar really helps too, it did that day anyway! The challenge online I guess is that you have plenty more people to get to know. Funnily enough Chris Brogan has posted on this whole subject too, worth a read…


  5. Behind all this discussion comes the gnawing thought that some people care about "friends" because they care about the numbers. I have a simple algorithm, driven by a significant emotional event involving a 25-man life raft that was bobbling alongside a US naval vessel. The challenge was to fill the raft and let some hang alongside. I hated making that decision and today still compartmentalise my friendships by using the metric of the 25-man liferaft. Even so, I would not be surprised if several in that cluster of hard core friends would never make time for my own funeral.


  6. Hi Euan, I think this distinction between friends and numbers is important. I think we all have strategies for managing the numbers of contacts we can interact with at all – even just notice their activities / communications, being open to informative inputs – versus those that we have closer relationships. Grading them across the different social communication channels – simply to control noise. Calling them friends suggests some sense of shared responsibility – a friend in need, etc.


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