How Google+ has forced us to Rethink the Spectrum of Friendship
Growing up as a child in the pre-Facebook era, my friends were people I played with, or hung out with regularly. They lived in the neighbourhood or I met them in school, or they were kids of my parents’ friends. I suspect that’s largely the same for kids today.
As we grow up and attend different schools or expanding our horizons with other activities: sports leagues, camp, music, part-time jobs, full-time work, moving to a different city, town, or country our friend network expands but also compartmentalizes itself into circles of friends. While you the individual deftly floats between your circles, the friends in each circle rarely meet each other. This is most noticeable at weddings where the different tables at the reception often reflect the different circles of friends and relatives for the bride and groom.
And there’s another thing tends to happen when we expand our social network. Individuals start falling on a friendship spectrum. On one side are your true friend, your BFFs, your confidantes, the people who know you really, really well. On the other side are your acquaintances, people you know in passing, whom you might stop in the street to say hi but the conversation almost never veers beyond small talk. Then there’s those in between. “Work friends” whom you see every day who know a fair bit about your personal life but you still feel the need to keep some professional distance. “Co-mingled friends” people who you met through someone else and love to hang out with them but you never get together except with that someone else. “Family friends”, the relatives of your friends or the friends of your relatives. “Old friends” who you don’t see as often as you used to but still maintain ties. And a whole slew of others.
Then Facebook came along and acquaintances, work friends, old friends, family friends, co-mingled friends, old friends all got mashed up together in the same news feed. It was both refreshing and complicated. The lines got blurred. Stuff you’d share with one circle of friends would be seen and commented by others and vice versa. On one hand, you got to know those on the weaker side of the friend spectrum a bit better and they got to know you a bit better. On the other hand, you got to know those on the weaker side of the friend spectrum a bit better and they got to know you a bit better 🙂 Eli Pariser can fret all he wants about filter bubbles but in some way Facebook opened us up by getting to (sort of) know our spectrum of friends better.
And now, here comes Google+ asking us to choose our friends and put them back into their circles. I understand the zeitgeist that inspired these circles. The voyeur aspect of Facebook was interesting at first but now that we’ve tested our limits with public-ness, we want to regain some control over who sees what. But now we’re faced with a rather awkward conundrum. The spectrum of friends, the degree of friendedness was heretofore a pretty much unconscious classification. It wasn’t something we’d say out loud and we didn’t really think too much about it. Now, here they are, staring us in the face. Our pre-frontal cortex, responsible for reasoning, is now given the unfamiliar task of classifying our friends, of pigeon-holing them into labelled groups. If algorithms created the first wave of online filter bubbles, the next wave might be created by us.