Relationship: It’s Complicated

Ignoring my grandma… friending my enemies… WTF? Is it even reasonable to expect social media to reflect the depth of our social life? And when it fails, what do we stand to lose? (+ tips & hacks)

Facebook, in a rare instance of honesty

I have recently become more interested in the “It’s Complicated” option in Facebook’s relationship status. It has hit me that it might be the most honest aspect of the site’s interface. While every third internet user on earth holds a Facebook* profile, none of the site’s users are getting an adequate representation of their social life. This is not due to some broken code or an untested interaction design. No, it’s actually our fault.

*Facebook, is a great case-study for these questions, but they can be asked about many of the social media tools we use these days (Buzz is definitely also relevant, though we don’t use it).

Why should it be so, hmmm… “complicated”?

Why should it be so complicated? We are already busy defining our social life anyway, we are in fact putting relationships into boxes all the time. Some people we call friends, others we call family, others are our group members, others we might admire and define ourselves as their fans. Many of the people you would like to associate yourself with would probably fall somewhere along these lines. In that sense what’s so wrong about Facebook giving us a tool to manage and present this?

Sign here, here and here, now we’re friends.

The only relationship I have ever signed into an official contract, is the one with my wife, Galia. Many of our friends chose to skip marriage as they didn’t feel a need for a bureaucratic intervention into their personal relationship. Yet the same friends and even non-friends send me contracts every day requesting to officially confirm our relationship. Indeed getting a “friend request” is a very awkward thing. It is just like being sent a contract requiring both sides to declare their relationship to the world (and indeed this friend information in Facebook is extremely public). Log in… confirm here… confirm here… confirm here… These “social” transactions are as official, controlled and mathematical as any of your credit card transaction (only less private).

That is not the way relationship works. It is not an on/off thing, it changes and it is reshaped. It cannot even be placed on a single continuum, it is multidimensional and is very, very hard to quantify.

@Heart, please alert me when a relationship changes, ok?

Using an interface to manage your social life requires us to externalize emotions, express them, and constantly update them. It is very different from the way we manage other information online. We converse through emails and comments, collaborate on documents… Always responding to an external social stimulus from our peers to update the social object – the conversation, the document. It’s all relational.

There is no social object in social networks other than your profile – the mask that would never quite fit your face. It sits there, for everyone to see, blocking your sight, constantly out-of-date, constantly challenging you. Unless the Fecebook engineers come up with a way for our hearts to plug directly to their system, we would always play catch up with our profiles.

It is hard impossible to constantly be ahead of ourselves, but even if we could, can we truly express our subjective emotions through one objective interface? On Facebook, friendships are forever, and so are breakups. We cannot be less friends, it’s a black and white thing. There are no best-friends or just acquaintances – you’re either a friend or you’re nobody. But even if I could define social proximity or “rate my friends” as some third-party Facebook applications invite me to, why should I? This is hard work, it does not really represent my social life and it just becomes more broken interfaces that are always out of date.

Finally, this online mask is not the emotion itself, it is an expression of it, and therefore it is a social act to be performed. I win points for performing friendship and I lose points for ignoring or worse “unfriending”.

Friend requests: the daily dose of guilt

Confirm? Or live with the guilt?

After using Facebook for a while most of the friend requests I get are by people I hardly know/forgot/don’t know. Every time that happens I mainly feel guilty. Maybe it’s an ex-student from 8 years ago, or someone I met in a conference or a colleague or just someone nice that wants to be my friend. How would I ever know? So I check their friends, and sometimes it helps but often they are friends of friends of friends that I have accepted because it was easier than facing the guilt.

So I just click the recommended blue “confirm” button and avoid the grey “ignore” button. And that’s how my Facebook has lost any social relevance. My feed is full of updates from people I don’t know. These people invite me to events that I am geography prevented from attending, they suggest I become a friend of their other friend that I don’t know or that I should become a fan of the company, organization, person or cartoon figure that I don’t know or don’t care about. And that’s a real shame because all this noise makes me miss or ignore my friends conversations and events. Facebook used to be useful, but I was too coward to hit the “ignore” button.

When I break and chose to “ignore” I am consumed by guilt. What have I become? Am I a snob? These are people who want to be my friends, how dare I refuse something as friendly as a friend request?

How I “ignored” grandma

I am sorry grandma, but I don't think it will work out. -ignore-

I love my grandma, and I love the fact that she’s using the internet, especially since we live almost 10,000km away from each other. I have her on Skype and we chat from time to time. I must say these Skype conversations probably provide us more intimacy than we used to have face to face. It’s really great. But then one day I got a Facebook alert: “Chana Levy wants to be friends on Facebook”.

Here are a couple more things about my grandma, she is in her late 70s, and like all my mother’s side of the family she is identifying politically with the Israeli religious right. If you read this blog long enough you would know that my political views definitely lean to the other side, and that I do have a need to express them. And I indeed express these views on my blog, on Twitter and on Facebook, and I try to engage in honest exchange about them.

But not with grandma. That’s just not the kind of relationship we have. She is not about to change her views and I respect that, so I don’t try. She is aware of my political views and loves me despite of them. If we do discuss politics on Skype it is very carefully, and very briefly, then I tell her about Galia, the cat, my job and about planning to return to Israel.

It is really hard to keep secrets on Facebook, and it is not like I am trying to hide anything (though if I was gay I would have definitely wanted anyone but my grandma to know that). It is about intimacy, an intimacy that changes from one person to another and cannot be configured in numbers and options.

So why should I confirm my grandma’s friend request? Or worse, why should I be required to “ignore” her?

I did “ignore” her. I still feel bad about it.

What about my enemies?

The small crowd of actual “friends” that I could still recognize on Facebook mostly fitted the type of intimacy that I would like to converse with. Or so I thought… Until one day someone commented with a pretty aggressive tone to one of my political status updates. Unsurprisingly, I had absolutely no idea who the guy was or since when are we “friends”. A quick lookup at our mutual friends drew the connection, we probably met in some tech conference, so there really should not be any reason we would really have much in common.

One of my exchanges with my FB "frienemy"

I started noticing more and more of his status updates, with their recurring offensive mentions of “Barak Hussein Obama”, outrageous incrimination of Israeli and international human rights organizations and constant justifications of for settler and army violence against Palestinians. After the second time he posted an aggressive comment on one of my status updates I decided that that’s it! we’re not friends and we never were. I am going to “Unfriend” him!

Just before I hit the “unfriend” button and relieved myself of his offensive online presence, I was reminded of Cass Sunstein’s critique in 2.0. His main critique in that book is that the hyper-personal information filtering that makes the likes of Google News and Facebook so great is endangering our public sphere and our democracies by creating echo chambers and information cocoons in which we are only confronted with like-minded people. Sunstein claims the actual effect of these environments are further group polarization, in which as long as members in the group are not confronted with views opposite to their own, a group of like-minded peers will quickly be following the more vocal voices and become more extreme.

Someone has invaded my cozy echo-chamber… How dare I block him away? I decided not to “unfriend” him. I actually respond to his status updates from time to time. I feel that engaging him helps me improve my own arguments much more than the easy leeway I get from my like-minded friends. It also teaches me how he constructs his arguments and builds his rational. I find this extremely important, even if I would never manage to convince him.

This relationship is possible despite Facebook, not thanks to it. Other than some interest in Technology and the same nationality we don’t have much in common so we’re not really friends, we are actually very far from that. We are classic political rivals, with a huge gap between us. The fact I have only one contact of this kind is really ridiculous.

Friend, yes/no, confirm/ignore, so what? It’s all fun… right?

You might say: so what’s the big deal? You don’t like Facebook, don’t be on Facebook…

Well, I think Facebook is actually pretty useful for managing events. It can also be a good way of sharing online content. Others find other uses for it. Plus it’s not really going away soon. But it is not only Facebook’s efficiency that is at stake here.

To make better use of these simplistic tools we end up simplifying our social life. To make up for the inadequate privacy features we give it up all together. To make up for the lack of intimacy we stick to non-committing general communication. Since there’s no room for antagonism, we stick to our groups of like-minded individuals.

It is not “just cyberspace”, online interaction matters. Time spent on Facebook is constantly soaring, a lot of our social life *is* online, but it is crippled and we should realize it is.

//End rant: We are “Friends” no more! (Tips & Hacks)

End rant. So complaining about what’s wrong is easy, and we have already established there’s not much sense blaming the technology for not accomplishing this impossible task. So what is there to be done?

Recently I have found that a lot of the conflicts and challenges around culture and technology revolve around an attempt at scaling subjectivity. That is also the case with Facebook, how can we get more than 450 million users’ subjective social life on one unifying objective platform. I am not sure this is a task that can really be solved, but I do intend to start writing about it soon (stay tuned).

There’s a lot that can be done, I would suggest the place to start would be in changing norms and terminology:

  1. I hereby declare none of my Facebook friends as “friends”. From now on they will be known as “contacts”.
    I hereby declare I didn’t “ignore” my grandma. I simply “skipped” the option of connecting with her on Facebook.
    This is not just an arbitrary statement. I actually modified Joe Simons Greasemonkey hack to make sure that as soon as my Facebook page loads all appearances of the word “friend” will be changed to “contact”. You can get the userscript here. (requires the Firefox browser & the Greasemonkeyplugin)
    Download: Don't "Friend" Me (literally) - a social hack!
  2. I hereby declare that any obscure “contact” request I get from now on will be kindly forwarded to this post. You can do the same, here’s a “short” url:
    (You can Tweet it too!)
  3. To allow my echo-chamber to be further invaded I have started a Twitter* (@mushon/opposition*) list of people I often disagree with on a political, ideological, philosophical, whatever level. It’s just a start and it’s not easy, I am sure it will soon be extended. I encourage you to do the same and maybe post a link to your Twitter list on the comments I would love to follow some of your opposition myself. (the enemy of my enemy is my friend contact)
    *EDIT (May 7, 2010): This list is now deleted. The idea has spiraled off a pretty unexpected/confusing/inspiring exchange between Adam Greenfield and myself, read about it on my following post: Engagement is Everything, a dialogue
  4. More suggestions are welcomed (please comment / trackback)

*Speaking of Twitter, I think the term “following” is pretty straight forward. I also find its asymmetrical relationships more appealing.

Stan, poke your grandma!

I would leave you with a segment of this brilliant South Park Episode:

And please, if you enjoyed this don’t “friend” me on Facebook, but you can definitely follow me on Twitter.

15 thoughts on “Relationship: It’s Complicated”

  1. Great thoughts on facebook here. Some things that stood out to me as I was reading was how this interface as you mention creates simplistic/black&white categories of our relationships with the exception of “it’s complicated” which might be the most honest one.

    I wonder if Facebook, as you question, really represents or misrepresents the depth of our social life and even social identity along the lines of our “status updates”. You brilliantly mention, “That is not the way relationships works. When two people get closer they don’t pull a contract to formulate the friendship.Relationship is not an on/off thing, it changes and it is reshaped. It cannot even be placed on a single continuum, it is multidimensional and is very, very hard to quantify.” I completely agree, and I think this is why it has devalued our social intimacy and understanding of what it means to be a friend, hence, why do I feel guilty for not accepting my mother/grandmother as a friend. ( I did not accept my mother by the way because it felt invasive of my own personal and social identity online, much like allowing your mother to hang out with your friends in real life versus her knowing who your friends are). Why have friendships been reduced to contractual agreements?
    I think this reflects much of our culture today. For example, look at how we view and value the “supposedly sacred” relationship of marriage today. Unsurprisingly, a lot of individuals and couples treat marriage as a short-lived romantic business relationship. When the going-gets tough, let me divorce you. Where’s the commitment? My point is that Facebook’s notions of frienships online illuminates the fragility and superficiality of our relationships and our viewpoints about relationships in real life. Thus, the ease of which we treat agree to bind ourselves to these contractual acquaintances, where it’s very easy to accept you even when I don’t really know you that well and it’s hard to reject or ignore you (guilty). Why do I feel such pressure? It leaves me to believe that the social networking of facebook is merely inflated to such a large degree and that a very large percentage of the friends or better said, “contacts” on my Facebook network aren’t really my friends. But as you exclaim, this has everything to do with the interface and how it’s boxing us in to these simplistic options when something like friendship, identity, or even love aren’t so simple. You ask, “In that sense what’s so wrong about Facebook giving us a tool to manage and present this?” It is very much our fault. Facebook just gave us a simplistic model that further encourages our limited understanding of social relationships. I guess it’s safe to ask – what constitutes a friend or in other words how do we value, qualify, or define friendship?

    You ask, “So it is (hard) impossible to constantly be ahead of ourselves, but even if we could, would the FB interface provide us the tools to really express our emotions? With regards to the status updates, you are right, we always playing catch up to change the concreteness of our status, feelings, etc. that continue to remain the same and fall victim to time unless we constantly try to “update” it. So in essence, I would argue that online identity is always behind our real-life self because of our incessant need to update. Moreover, for many, this becomes an addiction, to reaffirm to others in and outside of their social network e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc. how one is doing, feeling, thinking, etc. It makes me question the very motivation to why people publicize their private sentiments, thoughts, pictures, videos, and more. Do we REALLY value privacy and personal or in this day and age is it something of the past. I would argue that we live in a culture that is increasingly pushing for more “openness” and “transparency” which challenges our notions of privacy, security, etc. by challenging us to expose ourselves to others/the world. And so we are left open, vulnerable, and probably insecure to defend criticism or other attacks at the expense of the pressure to conform to openness and transparency.

    Lastly, I think it good thing to keep your enemies closer so that it can expand your understanding of the world instead of us increasingly polarizing ourselves with ‘like-minded’ people with the same views. However, one way or another I believe that we will have to choose sides, or if we really become confused, we might just think its best to remain in the middle (opposed to choose). Again, I’m speaking very generally, but overall, Facebook has it’s pros and cons and yes, it’s not going away. We are spending a lot of time online, and on Facebook, Twitter, etc. so it’s important to think about and try to understand ‘what it is we are really involving and engaging ourselves with’. What Facebook was then and what it is now is different. I feel that as people continued to catch on and it grew, money obviously entered the picture and further influenced the integrity of the system to corporate and commercial agendas to where people do start questioning their privacy settings. The bigger something gets the harder it is to maintain. I’m done. Thank you for making me think more profoundly.

    Oh, by the way, some of your tips and hack links don’t work properly.

    1. Boy Ryan… what a long comment, thanks!
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Would you retry the userscript? is down, but for now I linked it to my site. Should work now.

  2. Fascinating read, thank you for this.

    Two thoughts:

    When I started using flickr, I remember having the dilemma of whether to add people as *contacts* or *friends* (I believe you could also tag someone as *family*, which is quite unique for a social network).
    In practicality, this means that friends can view your private stuff, while contacts can’t. It makes a lot of sense for photographers, for instance, to be able to post their professional portfolio publicly, and at the same time tag an endless collection of baby photos “friends-only” so that a private space is created for friends and family to ooooh and aaaah.
    At the beginning I was very generous adding friends, but when I realized this had no meaning to me since I have no private pictures, I gradually stopped “friending” and now I only add contacts, regardless of the nature of our relationship.

    In its privacy settings, Facebook lets you define what friends-of-friends can see, and I think this should grow to be a more prominent feature. As you mentioned, our friends list is defined as we happen to shape it, and it’s interesting to find out how many users mindlessly add friends, and how many actually think about whether to confirm a friend or not. To have more control over what friends-of-friends can see and interact with will add a second circle of contacts that will enable us to ignore requests and perhaps feel a little less guilt doing so… :>

    1. Flickr’s example is interesting. It was also very functional – you would know the function of these settings was privacy in image sharing. You could define these settings easily on an image-by-image level or through editting images as a batch. You could also set something as private. Flickr’s terminology was quite sincere too:

      Smoochi has added you as a contact.
      Make them a contact too?
      If you don’t know Smoochi, she is probably a fan of your photostream or wants a bookmark so she can find you again. There is no obligation for you to reciprocate, unless you want to. :)

      No confirm, no ignore, no emotional manipulation, and it’s all about privacy of your photos, not entirety of your social life…

      Re: Friends of friends. While I agree that we need more control, I don’t agree that we want to exert more control (a lot of work) or that we can understand how any of our data is viewed or that we could ever really use an interface that would do that (beyond my suggestion to a direct heart/brain Facebook connect).

      I think at this point the premise of Facebook is broken as it will always fail its mission. Our social life are too complex for FB, something gotta give, I would suggest that something be FB (changing its terminology and extensive mission) rather than our social life (dumbed down, crippled).

      Twitter is a great example: no friends – only followers. Privacy settings – you either run a private account or you don’t. No attempt to recreate your social graph and definitely room for following your opposition.

  3. By the way, lol, after reading your post, I went onto my Facebook and deleted probably more than 100 so called “friends”. So my social network has been trimmed down tremendously now. Thank you for inspiring me. I’ll retry that userscript. Thanks.

  4. Mushonove,
    Since you write so beautiful on inner net communication in a … blog (tautology?), I find it necessary to hear/read your point of view regarding …. blogs communication (or did I miss it?).

    1. Dear Shai,
      To answer your question, I actually do see an enormous difference between posting on a blog versus posting on Facebook. Here are some of the differences:

      1. Data ownership:
        I own the data on my blog, I can choose to save it, I can choose to share it and I can use to delete it. I don’t need to sign an End User License Agreement (EULA) or to watch out for unilateral changes of service conditions.
      2. Data portability:
        If this blog does not serve me well I can choose to take my data and move it somewhere else. The information is not locked into the platform.
      3. Privacy, intimacy and social context:
        My information is shared by me, not by a system spreading it all over out of context. I can choose to make it private or limit access, but even if I don’t the readers of my blog are reading *my* blog, this is *my* context, and not some chaotic identity marketplace.
        With the new Facebook “Open Graph” every page you visit on the web that embeds a Facebook “like” button will identify you as Shai Zurim, and Facebook would know you visited the site and if you choose to “like” it, it will inform other visitors of that site of your preference as well.
      4. Interface control:
        This blog was developed (by me) based on the Open Source WordPress blogging software. I can change it to express who I am according to my own preferences. That’s why my projects can appear on the sidebar together with links to classes I teach. It is custom made to fit me, unlike the one-size, unisex, identity flattener that is Facebook.
      5. I could go on…

      There are several attempts to develop distributed peer to peer social networking, where the users will have control of their own profiles and identities while still enjoying the sociability and exchange that a network provides. These attempts are quite complicated technologically, but it is actually something we are looking at with my own OS project ShiftSpace.

  5. Mushon,

    I suppose that being as old as your mother puts me in that age group between yours and that of your grandma. That is probably the reason why I am less consumed with guilt when I ignore friend requests from total strangers unless they can give me a very good reason for wanting to be my friend. In my age it is easier.

    Don’t get me wrong. I can relate very much to this post as well as to Ryan’s comment, but instead of letting FB take over my life, I became a smart user, and find it very useful.

    I use it moderately and not even everyday. I don’t publish my every minutes actions and my status is only updated when I have something to say which is worth sharing.
    I was able to track down and get back in touch with people all over the world I lost contact with many years ago. It keeps me updated with what is going on with my true friends, colleagues and relatives. I simply block the “friends” I don’t want on my screen such as very young family member. This feature allows me to keep them around but in a safe distance.

    My partner who sits in the next room publishes pictures as he enjoys doing that on FB and this turned into a fun way for us to talk about things. It is a trigger to start a conversation for two very busy people as we are.
    He flew out to Boston yesteday to attend a hight school reunion, which is also thanks to FB. Some people convinced him they remembered him. Otherwise he would have never have dared to go after 40 years.

    I publish pictures from events aimed mainly for the ones who were unable to attend . I even use it to promote business events.
    I don’t become a fan or “like” groups that I have no interest in, and I don’t suggest friends to others.

    Using your grandma to make a point was a good idea. However, in her specific case (as I happen to know her), I believe her friends request to you had one reason only. She just wanted to show you what a cool grandma she is. She never writes on FB nor do many other friends I should have ignored before this turned into a real flud.
    Therefore it is actually OK to confirm friends and block them later, as it leaves all sides the option to use the personal message system on FB.
    This feature actually was very helpful today when a business e-mail I sent today was returned with an error, but went through on FB no problem.

    So, as always in life, age has its effect on how we do things, and using FB is no different.
    Bottom line as you said, the technology is there and how we use it is up to us.

    Love your writing,


    1. Dear Yud,
      You said:

      I simply block the “friends” I don’t want on my screen such as very young family member. This feature allows me to keep them around but in a safe distance.

      You should realize that even though your exactly (!) the same age as my mother, you are a power-user, and you are probably more media savvy than ~97% of the other Facebook users out there. This makes you someone who will go and edit her privacy settings to protect her privacy more than other users.
      But what about how you’re exposed to other less aware users content? How is the fact your contacts are exposing their identity performance to the rest of their “friends” affecting you? Your friends perform their identity, your work-colleagues perform their identity, your family-members perform their identity, your family-members friends perform their identity. They don’t plan to perform it to you, but they end up doing that anyway.
      Even though you’re a part of the tiny minority that adjusts their privacy settings, you are still affected by others lack of doing so. (it’s complicated…)

      1. Although I am flattered to be included in the 3 percent media power users, you lost me here. Why would the fact that others expose themselves affect me?

        I discussed the subject today with some friends (verbally). It has been said that those who have hundreds of friends on FB should not be envied. These people should go out there and get a life. Then again I know a young man who has a very successful blog about music, who claims that he confirms each and every friend request, and he does so for one purpose only….to promote his own blog, which is something I can relate to.
        It seems that the smart ones will always be a minority and use FB wisely, while the majority will keep on the herd behaviour in the way they are using facebook, or writing talkbacks or even the way they dress. I see no difference.

        1. This music blogger dude you mentioned is using Facebook as a public outreach tool, and by doing that he’s giving up the intimacy aspect that used to be what made FB unique and got so many people invested in it. He is using FB the way you would use Twitter (which is how I have been using it in the past year). If he makes sure not to compromise his privacy by doing that, then he would probably fit within this 3% (a number I made up). If he’s a blogger, he’s already more savvy, these guys along with some techies, PR people, educators, media studies students, they usually have a better idea of the ins and outs of this thing. Yet I’m pretty sure FB’s original interaction-promise (intimacy) that got all of us to trust it with a lot of very personal data would get even this mysterious blogger you mentioned to compromise their privacy more often than they would like to admit…

          Beyond that, Facebook’s friends of friends flexibility allows users to expose their friends data to other users and to third party companies. And pretty often they don’t know or don’t acknowledge the implications of that.

          To put it other words, if any of your contacts are not savvy enough to make the best judgment about their own privacy, your intimacy is effected as well.

  6. I found your article to be quite intriguing. I do like your idea of adding the grease monkey layer, and changing “friends” to “contacts” or even “acquaintances”. I might use it myself. I personally don’t know what to do with my Facebook page because of all the events that come my way. I use Facebook as an appointment book and black book for all friends/enemies/old acquaintances and the like. I hesitated to add my mother to my Facebook page, because I felt that someone that is so close to me doesn’t need to be part of my Facebook network, she is part of my “physical” network so to do speak.

    As for the friend/defriending – I have a few “acquaintances” who are constantly trying to “friend” me and I add them, and then de-friend them so they don’t realize I’m gone. For those who I reject, they seem to keep coming back. I believe Facebook gives people more “balls” to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do in the physical world.

    I wonder where this platform will be in 5 years and how it will effect how individuals interact with one another. I must remind a few of my friends at times that, Facebook is NOT reality, and speaking of it in conversations as if certain events occurred in the physical realm is not valid.

    When MySpace was first introduced I was very skeptical to join, but I was SO lost in my friend’s conversations that after 2 years I joined. I rid of that account, and with much peer pressure I joined Facebook (after being told its “Cleaner” just to keep up with what was happening in my friend’s lives/conversations.

    Web 2.0 suicide always looks more and more appealing after I think about this topic ;)

  7. Mushon,
    This is a great piece. Now whenever people ask my why I’m not on Facbeook, I can point them to this piece. It is a much more rational explanation and clearly outlines every single reason that I feel uncomfortable with the thought of joining it. I appreciate Honieh’s comment also – that Facebook is not reality, but the problem is that so many people think that it is (or even if they don’t really think that, they make assumptions and decisions as though it were). I cherish my friendships because they are friendships. Period. And not have Facebook makes it so much easier. Of course I feel left out of certain things – pictures of my little cousins mostly :) but I feel much saner this way. People think I’m crazy, but I’m not. Thanks for writing this.

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