Ed Note: This article is from the Anthropology in Practice archives, and was originally posted on August 24th, 2010. I've elected to repost it given the introduction of the Google+, which offers (necessitates?) a new means to connect. Incidentally, if you would like connect with me on G+, you can find me at gplus.to/krystaldcosta.
Facebook users are probably already familiar with the "People You May Know Feature" on Facebook which attempts to connect users to people whom they may, well, know based on degrees of connectivity. This feature has moved toward the bottom of the page and has been replaced by a "Friend Finder" feature which offers to search the user's email address book for potential missing contacts, but the idea remains the same: network saturation. These tools are meant to maximize the potential of our online networks, but are they really working?
I admit that on Facebook I've largely ignored this feature. Really, at this point the people Facebook thinks I may know are people that I either really don't know or people that that I'm hesitant about connecting to on Facebook. I’m not looking six degree connections, which admittedly, might be useful to new users looking to quickly expand their networks. At this point, I’ve friended important college friends, 95% of my high school’s graduating class, a solid core of folks I knew in junior high school, 75% of my sixth grade class, and an assortment of family and friends. My network seems plenty full.
But while it has been easy to ignore Facebook suggestions, it has been a bit harder to ignore those suggestions on Twitter, which has been the latest to add this kind of tool. I admit that I’ve seen a rise in Twitter followers (if you’re one of them, please say hello—don’t be a bot!), but in this case, the suggestions feel less intrusive than they tend to on Facebook. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the connections: on Facebook, I am likely to wind up sharing more personal details about my life in comparison to Twitter, where I try to keep my 140 characters related to anthropology, science, and occasionally baseball. And while folks on Twitter can peer into this side of my life, I am not obligated to reciprocate as would be the case on Facebook. But are these one-way connections meaningful? If we don’t interact, then what is the benefit of being connected?
The seventh definition of “network” (noun) on Dictionary.com reads:
An association of individuals having a common interest, formed to provide mutual assistance, helpful information, or the like.
While tools to facilitate connections are meant to make forming these associations easier, they seem to strip some of the meaning from the groups. Networks were not meant to be stagnant features in our lives—they’re meant to shift with us as we grow and change. We're meant to occupy multiple roles. What these tools do is allow us to hoard connections “just in case.” Does this lock us into an identity—I'm always the writer and you're always the artist regardless of how our lives may change offline? Does this change the standard for relationships? Does this, at least in the case of Twitter, place a value on what you know and can share instead of the personal connection you may have with someone?