The Spectrum of Online Friendship

by Simon. Average Reading Time: about 5 minutes.

Friends are an extremely important part of most people’s lives. The question Who are your friends?, is continually asked across The Web through applications that form part of the social media phenomenon. If you join Twitter or Facebook, one of the actions you are almost immediately asked is to identify your friends. But relationships in a digital world are not so absolute.

Human beings are social creatures–not occasionally or by accident, but always. Sociability is one of our core capabilities, and it shows up in almost every aspect of our lives as both cause and effect. Society is not just the product of its individual members; it is also the product of its constituent groups. The aggregate relations among individuals and groups, among individuals within groups, and among groups forms a network of astonishing complexity.

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 2008

Unlike real-world friendships, The Web has affected the number of relationships you can have and maintain and the intimacy of those relationships, enabling us to create different types or groups of friends. The astonishing complexity that Clay Shirky identifies is suddenly made infinitely more complex and abstract through digital media.

We now have communication tools that provide the flexibility to match our social needs and as a result are discovering new ways to make friends. These tools — better known as social media or social software — provide us the ability to share, cooperate with one another and indeed take collective action, all outside the traditional clubs and groups to which our parents would have been acustomed. These tools have had a profound affect on how we distinguish or describe friendship.

An online friendship is better described along a spectrum defined by the actions people take and how we feel about them.

Mike Arauz (permalink)

Spectrum of Online Friendship

Mike Aruz identifies 7 stages of online friendship in the above visual. These are:

  1. Passive Interest — This is the easiest level of engagement. It asks the least of your friends, and achieves the least commitment from us. But, it’s the crucial starting point. I follow my curiosity to you, I’m interested in what I find, and I choose to pay attention. This stage is epitomised by repeated visits to profiles, blog readers, and the so-called fans and followers.
  2. Active Interest — This is when I care enough to let you know that I care. It’s a small step, but a big opportunity for you to identify key members of your audience who are candidates to move along the spectrum. We don’t yet expect a response, we’re just letting you know that we’re listening. This is commonly experienced on Twitter, where you can respond to my tweets, even if I’m not actively following you. I can then decide whether you’re worth looking up. It’s really the starting point of a conversation; Hey I’m interested in what you have to say, you may be interested in what I have to say.
  3. Sharing — At this point the audience member starts to become a fan. You and your work become part of my identity as I use it to talk to my own friends about what interests me. I also have made myself more valuable, because I am now partly responsible for the spread of your ideas. This is typified by retweeting comments and links, using social bookmarks to save useful web pages and posting references and content to my own websites and social network profiles.
  4. Public Dialogue — This is the first phase that requires action on your part. I have either demonstrated an Active Interest or have Shared your work with my own friends. You foster a relationship by responding to my interest in a public forum such as Twitter and to some extent Facebook. By doing so, you make the rest of your friends aware of my existence, and welcome me to the group. This is signalled by @replies in Twitter, referrals in a blog post, references posted on other [important] websites and profiles.
  5. Private Dialogue — At this step, we begin to transform mutual interest into mutual trust. This really is the “major hurdle” that has to be overcome for a “digital friendship” to really mimic those found in the real world. We are willing to share thoughts, ideas, experiences with each other directly. We trust each other with direct access, which has increasing value in an increasingly always-on world. Direct messages on Twitter are just the beginning. At this stage we freely exchange private contact details such as mobile phone number and email address, which allows us to take the conversation beyond the social networks and into a more intimate realm.
  6. Advocacy — At first glance, Advocacy looks a lot like Sharing. But, the crucial difference is that Advocacy means that I am making an explicit recommendation of you to my friends. I am in effect putting my reputation on the line for you; there is the implied understanding that with this recommendation comes the obligation not to let me down. It’s too easy now to simply share, all it takes is one click on your bookmark tool bar. Choosing to actually say, “This is important. It’s worth my friends’ time. And I’m willing to risk my own reputation to convince my friends to check it out.”
  7. Investment — The pinnacle of online friendship. This is the most difficult achievement to recognise or quantify. But it’s the most important because it represents the willingness of your friends to take action on your behalf. Investment may not be entirely altruistic since your wins may become my wins. It’s a little like the self-propagating “old boys” or alumni network, which, while sometimes seen in a negative light, are successful in maintaining and extending relationships.

Some people have several hundred Facebook friends, thousands of blog readers and tens of thousands of Twitter followers; I’m thinking more @stephenfry than @whatterz here! Where these relationships were once considered merely an audience, they are developing into what people are now considering as friendships. I’m not so sure friendship is really the right choice of noun quite yet, since offline interactions are still important, but people who can cultivate meaningful relationships online have a lot to teach not only other people, but brands who are trying to figure out how they fit into the world of social media.

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