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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Online Interactions Supplement Offline Networking

One common objection to online social networking is that it sacrifices relationship quality for quantity. Although this might have been true of first-generation sites, it is becoming less the case as people become more sophisticated about the connections they accept and establish. As we discussed in Chapter 2, interactions on social networking sites tend to augment, rather than replace, offline interactions. One of the reasons why Facebook has been so successful compared with its predecessors is the focus on supporting offline networks over online-only relationships.

To test this assumption, I surveyed 100 of my own friends to ask whether they initiate or accept friend requests from strangers on social networking sites. A stranger is defined as someone whom you have never met in person. I tried to get representative coverage across different age groups, professions, and geographies, but admittedly many of my friends tend to reflect my own demographic. Also, this is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison because not everyone I surveyed belongs to all four sites.

Still, the results are illuminating. First of all, most (73%) had never received a friend request from a stranger on Facebook. Even among those who had, most did not accept these requests. They either clicked “ignore request” or did not respond at all (see Table 3.1). The results for LinkedIn follow a similar pattern.

Table 3.1. Survey of Friend Requests Initiated and Accepted from Strangers on Facebook, Linkedin, Orkut, and Myspace

Facebook

LinkedIn

Orkut

MySpace

Received friend request from a stranger

27%

34%

100%

100%

Accepted friend request from a stranger

5%

18%

66%

94%

Initiated friend request with a stranger

0%

7%

3%

47%

The respondents’ experience on Orkut and MySpace was markedly different. Without exception, everyone had been solicited by a stranger. More tended to accept strangers’ requests on MySpace than on Orkut. There was also a higher incidence of initiating friend requests with strangers on MySpace, presumably because it is common practice to befriend bands and celebrities on MySpace.

I dug a little deeper. Most people who accepted requests from strangers said they did so because it’s not clear what the protocol is for acceptance or rejection, and they didn’t want to appear rude. Many told me that after awhile, their Orkut networks degraded into largely random connections. Spam started drowning out interactions with real friends; as the site became less relevant, people stopped logging in and interacting, which made it even less relevant for their real friends who were on the site. Pretty soon, entire groups of friends stopped logging in.

Compared with Orkut or MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn established a clear friend request protocol and culture of trust for their networks. Facebook did so through e-mail-based identity confirmation (talked about in Chapter 2) and modeling their online networks off of real offline networks. For example, when you join Facebook, one of the first things you must do is choose one or more networks with which to be associated. Your options include schools, employers, cities, and other real offline networks that have real offline trust. LinkedIn took a different approach to establish protocol. By accepting a LinkedIn connection request, you implicitly agree to share your network and to professionally vouch for this person. Most people aren’t willing to vouch for strangers, so they are more careful about accepting LinkedIn connection requests from strangers.

Even when people meet for the first time on Facebook or LinkedIn, they are usually friends of friends or at least belong to the same network versus complete random strangers. In the case of LinkedIn, there is generally a business objective being driven that would result in a real offline relationship.

Far from signaling the end of traditional relationships, Facebook’s success is a testament that nothing is stronger than in-person rapport. Protecting the quality of online networks and focusing them on supporting offline relationships keep the Facebook experience relevant and valuable.

One interesting trend I did notice in the surveys, however, is that teenagers are more willing to initiate and accept requests from strangers. As I investigated further, it became clear this is due to competition over who has the most Facebook Friends. Fortunately, it is now possible on Facebook to classify and tag your relationships using Friend Lists, and to accordingly limit interaction and how much data is visible to each connection. For example, you could create a “Never Met” Friend List for strangers and hide all of your photos, wall posts, and contact information for all connections on this list. Relationship tagging and tiering using Friend Lists can be extremely helpful in maintaining high-quality online networks. Chapter 10 describes in detail how Friend Lists work.

With perhaps the exception of teens, we are seeing that online interactions tend to support rather than replace offline rapport, strengthening relationships you already have and laying the groundwork for future relationships you might not otherwise have enough context and capacity to pursue.

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