It’s not the technical aspect. Not the concept, either.
(Well, I don’t understand the hype and/or praise sites like Twitter is getting. From a technical standpoint, it’s well done, I won’t argue that, but I don’t get the point of the sites. But back to the topic.)
No, it’s the semantics.
You see, offline, I don’t call many people “friend”. This doesn’t mean I am surrounded by unpleasant people, quite the contrary. But I make a difference between friends and pals or contacts. A friend is someone I would risk my life for. Usually this two-way trust has grown over a few years, and is something important to me.
Now, online, I am expected to call every Tom, Dick or Harry “friend”, and somehow, that doesn’t work for me. I create an account at, let’s say, Pownce, and am instantly bombarded by new friend requests. Usually by people I haven’t spoken to before, let alone met.
Yeah… I am afraid I can’t do that, Digital Dave.
Sites like Flickr do it differently. People are “contacts”. If I decided I like them, I can promote them to “friends” or “family”. Which is okay. If we have spoken online, maybe in the office, maybe even met, then I am willing to add you as “contact”. That’s cool and not diminishing our relationship.
And this is my point: just calling someone “contact” instead of “friend” doesn’t mean I don’t like that person. It just means I don’t know him/her well enough to consider him/her a “friend”. Because to me, this word has a meaning. Shying away from labeling you “friend” isn’t impolite, it’s honest. Because we are not friends.
There are people I am fond of, people I like, but with whom I am not that close. I enjoy hanging out with them, and I enjoy their company, but they’re not my friends. And that is perfectly alright, for both them and myself.
(Truth to be told, it wasn’t always like this. But I’m growing older, and my views change.)
Another example: The other day there was a bit of drama in our little WoW guild. There was a younger lad who we were playing and chatting with quite often. At some point, he felt thoroughly insulted when Christian (pal of mine) and I kindly tried to explain to him that we were not his friends. Heck, we had never met. We were playing an online game together, and chatting a lot while doing so. We tried to get the message across, tried to explain that we liked him, but we didn’t consider him a friend in the true sense. He got upset and left the guild in anger.
Well, it happens. Not much I can do about it.
The net is our (relatively) new world. Our habits are changing, human relationships might, too—at least a bit. Still, should we abandon our values? If everyone is a “friend”, it means nobody is. For me, this prospect leaves a lot to be desired.
Dear site builders, please stop trying to build a virtual Woodstock. I know you’re probably just trying to achieve a feeling of “I belong here” for your users so they come back, but for God’s sake, stop making me pretend I care equally about everyone. Because I don’t.
Update, 2007-07-25, 9:18 CEST: jr suggested the use of a new word for this type of online kinship, and I like the idea. His suggestion was “webbie”, but to me that sounds too much like a certain online award.
Anyways, my personal proposal is the use of “webster”. I’ve checked Wikipedia, the original meaning of the word has kind of “expired”, so let’s re-use it. :) Are you with me, people?