Is friendship commutative?

Recently I joined Facebook in order to coordinate a project with the high school kids at church. Facebook really isn’t designed for this sort of thing; Yahoo Groups might be more appropriate, except that communicating with teenagers is hard. They all have email, but most of them never check it. Some of them check Facebook several times a day. (Others refuse to sign up.)

Ever since then, I’ve been getting “friend” requests. For the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many of these are people I know quite well. But I occasionally get one from someone I barely remember– but who might have good cause to remember me.

I went through the same thing with Friendster when it was popular. I’m a minor celebrity at Opus (and only at Opus), so after I got home from Opus one year, I got 50 friend requests. Mind you, I’m sure I had meaningful conversations with most of those people, but my brain is terrible with names and faces.

In everyday life, we assume that friendship is commutative. That is, if I am your friend then you must be mine. That’s absolutely not the case with social networks, where friendship is linked to one’s access another person’s information. A celebrity who wants people to know what he or she is doing needs to approve everyone as a friend.

Twitter has a more natural model. Signing up to follow one person’s tweets doesn’t imply that that person needs to follow yours. As does Slashdot, which lets you declare “fans” and “foes.”

Social networking sites need to forget friends and just have fans. The interface on Facebook wouldn’t need to change much. (Although the underlying data model would need to be significantly revamped.) When you sign up as someone’s fan, that person could be given the chance to deny you access. (In practice, that probably wouldn’t stop a committed stalker.) You’d also be given a chance to be that person’s fan.

In real life, friendship isn’t as commutative as people pretend it is. How close one really feels to another is often a guarded secret or an unspoken assumption. Doctors regularly feign familiarity with their regular patients, whom they see far too infrequently to remember. As do ministers and a host of other people in a variety of professions.


2 thoughts on “Is friendship commutative?

  1. Even on LiveJournal a lot of people feel weird about not friending people back who friend them. On the other hand, I’ve got so many authors and filkers and friends of friends on that list, that anything actually personal will be locked to just a subgroup of all my friends.

    I was just thinking of how transitive “water brotherhood” isn’t…friendship is closer to transitive but still not 100% by any means. Everyone knows someone who’s friends with a jerk, or with someone untrustworthy…or whom you just haven’t warmed up to yet. But still, friends of friends do tend to get the benefit of the doubt.

  2. You mean symmetric, not commutative
    — seebs’ mom (who was a math teacher back in the last century)

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