The MySpacing of Facebook and “Social Drift”

random cluster of pseudocelebrities

Maybe it’s just me, but as time goes by I notice more people on Facebook befriending celebrities; not their fan pages, the actual celebrities.

One of the things I prefer about Facebook over MySpace has always been the low signal-to-noise ratio (also the completely lack of glitter, spam, and profiles so wide they’d require a Jumbotron to display without a scroll bar).

The reason for this is simple: people are more selective about who they befriend. Granted, everyone has those friends that they’ve added simply because 20 of their other friends have and they keep showing up as “People you may know”. If you don’t add them, you’re pretty much an asshole, even if you only have a shaky connection to the person at best.

But I’m not talking about these people; the socially expedience of adding acquaintances from work and school is a given. I’m talking about the “social drift” that would, apparently, eventually culminate in everyone directly networked with everyone else.

Here’s an example:

I recently “befriended” MMA and San Shou fighter Cung Le, and a few other notable personalities in the MMA industry. That’s not so bad, I’m a (D-List, at best) personality in MMA myself by virtue of running a huge MMA site, being a Judge, and occasional columnist/reporter/etc. Le popped up in the column on the right where it notifies you about mutual friends and very subtly mocks you for not being friends with so-and-such. An incidental mouse-click and the “situation” is rectified, pending approval. (If for some reason you’re rejected I’d imagine you wouldn’t get bothered with it again anyway).

So shortly after the request was accepted, I wander over to Mr. Le’s profile and notice he’s got around 4k friends. Deep within my itty-bitty heart, my inner child shed a tear; I guess I wasn’t so special after all. If I took anything on the Internet seriously, I probably would have been genuinely bummed to an appropriately minor extent for one simple fact: I hadn’t actually “networked” with Cung Le, I’d just added another point to his eCred (everyone knows at 5000 friends you level up and get new abilities). The guy obviously hasn’t been introduced to Facebook’s fan pages which allow notable persons to create page that can be more “public facing”. In my estimation, Fan Pages were created as a hedge against the kind of drift that’s effectively neutered MySpace as a viable networking platform: having umpteen-billion “friends”, 99% of which you’ve never actually met or share genuine connections with. But note to Facebook: it’s not working.

Like most reasonable people, I’ve never conflated my friend count with any statement on my individual worth, but it’s apparent that entirely too many denizens of the tubes actually do, and that this mindset is here to stay. It’s already effectively neutered MySpace as a viable medium for anything other than getting the word out about your crappy band or awesome t-shirts. And if Facebook doesn’t watch it, it’ll decimate them as well.

The true take-away from this is that as social drift occurs, people inevitably migrate towards progressively smaller and more “intimate” niche networks with a lower signal-to-noise ratio. An excellent example of this is LinkedIn.com. You could use Facebook to network for jobs, with colleagues, or to reach out to possible mentors and leaders in your industry. But do you really want to have your CEO sharing a data stream with the teenage friends that convinced you to get drunk and vandalize a railroad crossing? Or take my own “social network”, Bullshido, for example. The entire site’s centered around people getting together and beating the piss out of each other, in mutual celebration of everyone’s love for MMA and the Martial Arts. As such, the interactions there would generally not be appropriate in “Cube Land” or with your church’s youth group (especially since most people who participate there lean towards unrepentant skepticism).

Social drift is a boon to niche networks because the upside of networking is also its downside; the ease of information sharing can often unintended consequences (such as getting fired). The “you” you are with your drinking buddies isn’t appropriate or appreciated in the 10 AM Sales Meeting. In real life it’s easy to draw clear lines of separation between private, professional, and public life; on the internet: not so much. And it’s especially hard if you’re only networking on the conventional sites.

So I’d like to personally thank the attention whores who feel compelled to befriend anyone remotely connected to them. You folks are driving more and more people to niche networks like mine where people generally don’t have to worry about the social consequences of turning down a friend request from their boss, since he probably doesn’t train in MMA anyway.

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