With its new implementation of Groups, Facebook has revamped its way of mapping relationships into something multi-dimensional instead of the classical “star” configuration. At least they’ve offered the option of doing that; whether users will bother is another matter. What’s more interesting to us is the drivers to make the change in the first place, and what it says about social behavior online, and the services that might be based on it.
There’s always a certain number of people on social networks who measure themselves by the number of “friends” they have. On business-based LinkedIn, for example, there are whole groups of users who do nothing but race to establish tens of thousands of contacts. The problem with this approach is that it tosses out the whole notion of a relationship in a social sense. Studies show that people don’t have that many real “friends” or “contacts”. About 80% of the average person’s social interactions take place in a group of less than 100 people. In real life as in cyberspace, we have to balance how many such relationships we create against the difficulty of sustaining them.
Social communications has to reflect the value we place on each individual, but social networks have to build community mass. We can’t use the latter principle to establish frameworks to support the former; social communications has to be personal. Will you ask your whole community of Facebook friends for advice on a car? Perhaps you’d ask the question but you know that a) most wouldn’t respond and b) you wouldn’t weigh the responses equally. How we watch television, or buy cars, or plan projects may all involve social interactions and thus appear to map to social networks, but it’s not a simple direct matter of building a flat community that centers on each of us. Groups “friend” other groups, they have fuzzy boundaries, they interact through filters. In short, they’re not Facebook groups, even now, and we’re entering a time when the difference between real social groups and online groups will matter a lot to us.
Wireline social networks are free and relatively controllable, but that’s not true for mobile. Constant tweets or status updates are a lot more distracting because I’m living when I’m mobile and I’m sitting when I’m on wireline broadband. Mobile broadband is going to change our notion of groups and friends from our current Facebook simplicity because it’s going to force us to decide between living our own lives and paying with airtime and distractions for how others want us to think they’re living theirs. If you want to look for a truth that Microsoft could exploit to get into the mobile market, look there.