This evening, I went to approve a friend request on Facebook, only to find that I was now forced to fill out the details of my friendship with this individual. Had we lived together or worked togther? Had we met randomly, or through Facebook? Apparently, no longer do we have the option of keeping this information to ourselves – all of the details of our friendships must now be public.
Yes, I know I was a little hard on Facebook in my last post, but unannounced, unexplained changes like these can wreak havoc on the already turbulent ecosystem of FB. Furthermore, this top-down mandate is going to leave a lot of users unhappy; people like having the ability to choose how much information they make public. Facebook may not know this, but forcing people to publicly describe friendships is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable – they like having the flexibility to keep parts of their life private. It’s essentially silly to boil down something as complicated as all of your friendships into 12 pithy categories. What about the people you grew up with? Where’s the “met them at age 5 on my block” category?
Facebook has likely instituted this change for two reasons. The first is part of the overall “radical transparency” movement espoused by the techno-libertarian leadership of the company. They feel that all information should be public, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry, etc. So this is likely part of an overall strategy. The reason it happened now, i.e. the second part, is to stem the rampant “non-friend friending” that is going on amongst new joiners. Look at this blog post, the author brags about how many thousands of friends he has, and how elite they are. I have to imagine that even FB employees have to be a little mortified in seeing their system become nothing more than a rolodex – I’ve heard it called “the next Plaxo.”
Of course, instituting changes to control behavior at one edge of the ecosystem will affect other parts, and the longtime users are the ones who will be most displaced by this change. And it is a significant change – “friendship” is at the core of Facebook, and to now have to fit every friendship into Facebook thin lens will make many uncomfortable. Just as with the newsfeeds, in which the nature of friendship was instantly changed, now every friendship must make the uncomfortable dance of description. It’s really too bad – this feels like such a Friendster moment.
Update – Blake Ross responds: “This is a bug that will be fixed shortly. Note that even now, you need not enter any information.” I respond to Blake in the comments.