Social Networking sites and social technologies have made it easier to ‘acquire’ and ‘keep in touch’ with ‘friends’. I use the quote marks advisedly. Most social platforms are focused on these aspects of relationships, but that might not be the best game in town.

This post is partially triggered by Euan Semple’s own post on friendships, but also by observations of social media relationships relative to ‘traditional’ ones. Euan says this:

“It is the classic problem of signal to noise. If I do nothing the number of people I end up knowing just causes noise in my life, if I put in a little bit of effort I can increase the signal to noise. A lot of this is about energy for me – how much certain people make me feel energised and engaged and how much energy I feel inclined to put into the relationships.”

From Collecting to Connecting

It is not a popular topic, but that doesn’t stop it being a critical issue. Social networking sites have undoubtedly distorted our social graphs. They have extended the “long-tail” of school friendships, and broadened the funnel of strangers that turn into friends. That isn’t without its issues, especially when social networking platforms tend to function as crab traps – easy in, tricky out.

There are cognitive limits on the number of friendships we can sustain (see Dunbar’s Number and the complete bounds of our social networks for more of a discussion). The tools may extend that number, but I am reminded of the instructions that came with the first car I had with an anti-locking break system: they said something like “This technology does not endow you with super-human stopping powers. The laws of physics and the road still apply.”

You can attempt to juggle 2,000 relationships, and some people may even manage that, but for most of us mere mortals we will simply end up with a collection of contacts and unconnected names. That is very different than having a support network of friends. It is not a plate spinning competition, and even if it were, those competitions usually end with piles of broken plates – not a great outcome if you are a plate lover. Time is the oxygen of friendship, and when there isn’t enough oxygen around, things die off. Our cash-rich, time-poor society tries to compensate for that in all sorts of ways, but it is still a basic rule.

Relationship Types

Research traditionally talks about three types of relationship: kinship, instrumental relationships and friendships. It is worth quickly reviewing them here.

Kinship refers to relationships with family members (biological or in-law). Because of social convention, these relationships are unique. Family social calendars, weddings, funerals and births provide touch points that sustain relationships that might not otherwise exist. Not guaranteed, but blood and marriage provide social bonds.

Instrumental relationships are brought to us as the consequence of life’s other structures. Neighbours and co-workers are products of where we live and work. Created and sustained by geography and the roles that we occupy, they rest in an uneasy transitory space between friendships and nodding partners. You might or might not choose to have your boss as a friend, but you undeniably have a relationship, even if it is the casual exchange of short sentences.

Friendships. Last, but most definitely not least, “the voluntary, ongoing associations between two persons that facilitates attainment of socioemotional goals” (Hays, R. B.(1988). Friendship. New York: S.W. Duck Edition.). Or, as I once heard “friend” defined: “someone you’d feel comfortable borrowing money from if you met them in an airport” – I’m not sure why the airport comes in to it, but it makes an interesting point about friendships all the same.

As a side note here, these differences are one of the reasons that building a social network to run inside of a business is very different than building one that runs outside – and why I groan every time a business says “can you build us a Facebook.” You need to build something quite different to support instrumental relationships and turn them in to friendships, if that is truely what you want to do.

Relationships – Endings and Pauses

Each type of relationship has it’s own way of being sustained, and its own way of ending. Kinships are sustained by the marriages, funerals, and births that accompany our lifecycle. Instrumental relationships are sustained by the encounters repeatedly created by the environment. Friendships are sustained by common interests and the rewards of mutual support.

Aside from tragic deaths, real-life relationships don’t switch off just like that, they gradually decay. Once we move away or change jobs, we keep in touch for a while, but contact becomes less and less frequent, until there is none at all, unless the relationship made the jump to a friendship. Even friendships fade away. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with taking people off of the Christmas card list. When you haven’t seen them, and they haven’t written back for a decade, it probably is time to save the postage, but it is still hard.

Ending a relationship on a social networking site is a little bit more brutal. Unfriend. Unfollow. Block. It is all a bit binary. Binary break points are hard, and unnatural. Unfriending someone on Facebook, or unfollowing someone on Twitter is the modern day equivalent of removing someone from the Christmas card list. Binary break points are hard and unsophisticated.

This isn’t just relevant to the “soft and squishy” world of personal relationships, it applies to businesses as well. Prospects turn in to customers through a process of relationship building, especially in the business to business space where Redcatco operates. Spread yourself too thin and you aren’t going to have any customers. There is a real cost to maintaining relationships too. Digital communication might have dramatically reduced those costs, but they are still there.

It makes good sense to create pause points for friendships, both digital and analogue ones. Closing off in a way that is open, and leaves the door ready should circumstances or situations change. Work relationships are often reignited when both people end up under the same business umbrella at a different company down the line. A friendship or a customer that isn’t going to work out right now, might work out in the future. Social software really doesn’t handle that well, today. No Auto-Unfriend. No graceful decay. Just <click>.