Saturday, January 8, 2011

Alter ipse amicus

Alter ipse amicus: A friend is another self

Is that a friend or contact? We must discern between the two, as social media has made the act of friending into a meaningless competition that often deludes people into a false sense of self. A few years ago, a colleague and I conducted an experiment on a now defunct social platform to better understand the role of social influencers (highly connected people) in building a personal network. We found that by using a persona to only friend complete strangers with 500 or more friends, we were able to quickly build a network of over 1000 friends in a matter of weeks. We also studied how some superficial changes in that persona became highly magnetic and dramatically increased the rate of friend requests. After finally destroying the persona, we concluded that we had to clearly define friend and contact, differentiate the two, and create distinct weightings when determining their level of influence in the social graph.

On Christmas Day, 2010, Simone Black posted on her Facebook page that she was taking her own life. None of her 1082 friends did anything to stop it, and some even mocked her. This is not the first time someone used a social platform to broadcast their intent to do harm and there was total inaction by that individual's social network. We do not know enough of Ms. Black or her friends to launch any kind of blanket indictment, but this tragedy speaks to several issues:

People can be incredibly callous to the pain and suffering of others
The current state of humankind leaves much to be desired. There is room for much improvement in our regard for one another, as evident by increasing attacks on the most vulnerable. Ian Birrell of Mail Online writes:
Every day, people with disabilities are attacked in their homes, spat on in the street and taunted in their towns. And every year, this torrent of abuse, bullying and torture ends with more and more names on the list of those who die in terrible circumstances simply because they are disabled.
It is symptomatic of a larger emotional disconnect to our fellow man. But it is not just the clearly disabled who are at risk, it is anyone who demonstrates or perceives that they have any level of weakness or vulnerability. And so people develop a range of defense mechanisms, from preemptive behaviors marked by unusual aggression, to building extensive but shallow social networks that provide a false sense of community or mutual consideration. This movement from fostering meaningful, permanent friendships to casual, temporal friendships is often based on the mistaken sense that they carry the same weight. They generally do not.

There often remains a fundamental emotional disconnect when using technology for asynchronous communication and social interaction
In the 1990's email emerged as the communication medium of choice, but there arose the issue of flame mails: communication that was hostile, inflammatory and generally counterproductive. At the heart of the issue was a new communication medium that had not yet developed its own rules of decorum, and people mistook the ability to write with ease, relative anonymity and immediacy as a parallel for handwritten communication. It became apparent that the thought and deliberation that went into letter writing did not carry over as often to email, and the ease of distribution and redistribution introduced an entirely new and problematic dynamic. Over time best practices emerged to address the issued created by electronic communication. As with the mass adoption of email, we now see the same period of whitewater from the disruptive qualities of new social media technologies and the corresponding lack of best practices.

We are experiencing a rapid increase in technology-driven social engineering, and we should be cautious of what are essentially untested ideas and new behaviors that do not always transcend generations, cultures or even exhibit common sense. As someone behind the development of new collaborative technologies, I constantly ask myself, is this a good idea? Sometimes it is not. And sometimes it is not for me, but it may be for others and so it is built. But the rule of unintended consequences should always be considered, and where technology fails to consider social consequences, we must develop our own methods and best practices for dealing with them, or simply opt out.

There needs to be differentiation between friends and contacts - they are not the same
Recently I unfriended almost 200 people on Facebook. It was not that I didn't like them, but they were not what I could define as friends for a number of reasons:
  • I never have or will meet them in person
  • They friend me and then don't interact with me afterwards
  • They are completely inactive
  • They are strictly a business contact
  • I feel uncomfortable due to their lack of personal familiarity and that they can see into my personal world
  • They have creepy friends
There is a certain irony in the occasional uproar over personal security on Facebook. What most users fail to consider is that the accounts of their friends are the critical point of vulnerability. You can easily hide all of you personal information from the public, but if someone hacks your friends' account you have created a trusted pathway to the very people you were trying to avoid. As a result, I do not keep inactive friends on Facebook.

Aristotle declares, alter ipse amicus: a friend is another self. I must recognize my self in my friend and my friend in me. Genuine friendship is defined not only by a friend who acts for his friend's sake, but is also aware of his friend by knowing him. I think this is why we need to make the distinction between friends and contacts and use the appropriate technologies for each:
 friends - Facebook, contacts - LinkedIn. 
And so there may be this grey area for some that straddle the friend v. contact chasm, and this is where we need to develop new norms and behaviors to distinguish between each in an era of social media that frequently has difficulty in recognizing the difference.

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