danah boyd‘s 2006 article “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites” argues against the assumption that in order for people to be “friends” via an online community, both people need to already have an identifiable relationship in the physical world. Boyd explains that “a prevalent assumption by many observers is that the articulation of Friendship is equivalent to friendship (Kornblum, 2006). In other words, if people say they are Friends on these sites, they must be friends in other contexts as well.” (p. 1). This understanding of friendship is rooted in a time when online communication was largely considered to be utilitarian and nothing more – the idea of an emotional relationship in the digital world was inconceivable. On page three, boyd quotes Rebecca Adams and Graham Allan as saying that “the contexts within which friendships develop influence the forms which friendship take.”
A development boyd’s article cannot account for is the recent introduction of levels of friendship on Facebook. This local news article delves into the new subtleties of adding people on the social networking site: summarized, you can now list your Facebook friends as “close friends” or “acquaintances.” People that you have listed as “close friends” will always show up on your timeline when they update – you can even choose to receive specific notifications about what they are doing on Facebook. Acquaintances, however, do not have this intense level of connectivity. Of course, you can always choose to opt out of this feature by not specifying what kind of Friend a person is; they can just be your friend. However, this doesn’t necessarily avoid the problem because vagueness could actually be more confusing. Because this feature is still new, I think people are still developing a social etiquette and guidelines around it; the way any online community does, as outlined by Nancy Baym in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age.
This new affordance can allow us to more clearly define our relationships, and yet it can also be a source of stress when we do not know what the appropriate label is. The fact that people are notified when you list them as a close friend adds a whole other angle to the situation: on Twitter you are often part of a huge mass of followers keeping track of one person, but “close friending” someone on Facebook is a bit more direct and intense. Oftentimes Twitter users are not expressly notified about new followers, but on Facebook it is a specific event in your online life. At least, that’s the idea.The confusions surrounding the nuances of this friending system necessitate an update in the research done by boyd not only because it is a new affordance, but also because it changes the nature of one of boyd’s central questions: if Friending creates relationships between people, how does the advent of close friends or close acquaintances temper or enhance those relationships? Did the old, singular system of friending limit the sophistication of our online relationships because we weren’t provided with labels to make them more specific? I suspect that most Facebook users use Friending as simple way to establish that they have some sort of connection with a bother person, be it in the physical world or not. The nuance of the relationship, then, rests in their mind – there is no one forcing them to produce a definite evaluation of how interested they are in the life (read: Facebook updates) of each of their friends.
Some of boyd’s claims have been rendered obsolete; among these is the problem of how to react to a friend request. She explains:
“Since it is generally known that the pending list is the first thing you see when you login, it is considered rude to login and not respond to a request. For all of these reasons, it’s much easier to just say yes than to face questions about why the sender was ignored or declined” (p. 9).”
In my experience, the priority level of accepting (or denying) a friend request, on Facebook in particular, has lessened greatly. I don’t know for certain what to attribute this to, but I think it’s an indication of online friendship taking on more meaning. We will no longer friend just anyone. Facebook has never been a platform where most users are obsessed with gaining as many friends as possible, whereas MySpace encouraged the competition (by displaying friend count prominently, “Top Friends,” etc.). I think that boyd’s findings on the culture of Friending are still relevant, but need to be expanded to include an understanding of the more complex Friending systems that have arisen.