Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Electronic Friendship Regrettably Is Too Often An All Or Nothing Proposition

I have many asymmetrical human-to-human relationships. People who are more interested in my time and thoughts and presence than I am in theirs, and people whom I would like to get to know better and spend more time with who are not as interested in that as I am. We are a jumble of ideas and experiences and ways of expressing ourselves, and to create a good relationship of any kind, they have to match on some level. And often they don't.

We have centuries of rules, customs, and collective experience on how to manage this. It is an essential lesson of socialization to recognize the balance in a relationship, how it is shifting, and how to maintain it, at the comfort level of all participants, without being either too passive or aggressive. We can't evaluate relationships yearly with a questionnaire and a 1 to 5 scale like happens at jobs ("Well, the amount of texts you send is optimal, but the amount you cling around me at gatherings really is a 3: Needs Improvement") so we rely on cues. Most people's egos are not strong enough to handle direct communication on this level about how welcome they are, to the point that "He's just not that into you" as a sentence required a book and a movie to be celebrated properly as an idea. Nobody likes to be rejected, so people who blatanty reject get labeled 'mean', and the rest of us try to be gentle.

We handle the asymmetry by the amount of time we give, how long we take to call back, how often we actually do go over to watch the slide show, how much effort we do to see someone when they come through town. We can manage our exposure to each-other, how much time we invest, because physical life allows us to create gradations (and when it doesn't, well, there's always the assertivity training to learn to set boundaries, or the restraining order.) But electronic life really does not.

The current juggernauts of connecting, Twitter and Facebook, are really all-or-nothing relationships. There are millions of levels of friendship in physical life, yet Facebook really knows only one, and has limited controls about how you expose yourself, of which the results are really quite blatant to the follower. While setting them up last night I had to wonder if agreeing to friend someone but then putting them in a very limited group that couldn't see my stream of status updates isn't almost a snub worse than ignoring the friend-request altogether. (But no, 15 y.o. nephew, you really don't get that much access to my life.)

Twitter understands relationship are asymmetrical, where Facebook does not, but then expects them to be all-or-nothing. Yes, you are following my stream, and I know you in real life, but I am not sure I want to read every URL you find in your daily Net Grazing, crowding out the more seldom items from my friends. Third-party tools are trying to fill in this usability gap by allowing Twitter feeds to be grouped so you can keep the high-value Tweeters close to your heart while relegating the less valuable ones to the group you may check once in a while, while seemingly being a great social butterfly mediator person who is connected to everyone and everything. But I have to say that when I get a heartfelt invitation to "Follow me on my Twitter feed!" that already has 16.000 followers, I wonder how much value I will be able to bring to this relationship. Especially if I then get followed back among the 14.000 people this account follows. That is why I find email that I am being followed by what turns out to be an Affiliate Marketing robot so soothing: pretty much nothing is expected from me, and I get to look as if I am more interesting with that extra follower: WIN!

Most blogging have equally or even less sophisticated systems of privacy and mediation of relationship. LiveJournal and DreamWidth have a very sophisticated system for grouping followers for who can see what. The other blogging systems seem are all-or-nothing, and seem built for people who want everything they have to go out there to everyone in what are write-only systems with primitive comment fields attached. Blogs really are about publishing, not relationships.

And this mismatch between how electronic and away-from-keyboard relationships end up being conducted is really curious, because the software world is really good at filtering. Filtering by name, time, content, exposure, it's all in a context-switch's work, yet these things are not there. This could be because filters add complexity, and users actually do gravitate to simplicity over looks or features (see, respectively: Craigslist, 1st generation iPods).

I keep wondering if this is because these systems of connection grew up together with all-you-can-eat broadband in the centers where they were created. Back in the Usenet1 days, when IP connectivity was indeed metered, there were pretty sophisticated filtering systems for the stream of articles created globally by participants, and they acted on the server side before the article was transported, character by character, down to the reader. There actually was a monetary incentive to not receive too much crap, and computers assisted users -- if primitively -- in making that happen, instead of being open pipes to everything. But even then I was glancing at the amount of characters on my screen, together with the content in the From: and Subject: headers, to make a snap judgment on whether to hit the space-bar before even reading the first sentence an awful lot.

If broadband had always been metered, like it was early on mobile phones, would the systems created have allowed us to manage how much our new friends take over our time better? The early history of data applications on mobile phones, when data usage charges ended up on our bills measured in kilobytes, points to this being a moot question: like mobile application stores only took off when people didn't have to worry about how much data would cost on their iPhones, in a pennies-per-kb world the Web would simply have not taken off as it has, and electronic communications would have remained a beep-beep-doot-doot-modems-in-basements hobby, and I would still be sitting down with a travel agent to book an airplane ticket.

Instead, the Web took off, we will have to use our brains to navigate what the networks bring us full-blast 24/7, and hope for some model to arise that is much like the people who have to fiercely guard access to their time and person use: a personal assistant that trudges through the information and passes on only the best, a sort of human spam filter that keeps all the balls in the air, and writes coherent and targeted answers back while the celebrity in question gets to bark out strategy commands, and then gets to vacation in Hawaii again to escape the stress. The rest of us just get to hope we do not bruise egos too much when we click "Ignore" on a friend request, or remove a stream that is just not interesting.

1Yes, I was on Usenet. Indeed, I passed my 20-years-on-the-Internet a few months ago, which means I am a Question 2 social media expert outlier. I am still not sure of what it means that I looked at most of that article thinking 'My gawd, are you serious? I could get paid for this? Or do I have to only talk about margarine on Margarine blogs?'