Was struck by two recent interface changes, one on Orkut and one on Friendster, both in the direction of gathering more explicit meta-data.
Friendster first: they have added these two sets of preferences, to be used in the next rev of the service:
Friendster has a reputation for ham-handedness after the Fakester thing, but both of these permissions seem about right. Every social networking service risks selling size of network, because we're used to size being the metric of success for other online service, but scale kills community
. It looks like Friendster has finally figured out that 'friend of a friend of a friend' is pronounced 'stranger', especially on a service where the definition of friend is so debased already.
These are 'set once and forget' permissions, they will cut down on message spam, and they will allow a distinction between one's broadly and closely public persona. The only quibble is that by setting the default to 3 degrees of separation, most of the value of the change won't appear for users who leave the default settings.
Next is Orkut.
Stupid stupid stupid. But wait, there's more: stupid _and_ insulting. Bad enough their previous addition to this interface: "Please make sure this person is your friend." Please _make sure_? I have 30 million years of primate social experience wired between my ears -- I know instantly whether someone is a friend or not. There are times when I forget people's _names_ and I still remember whether they are friends or not. What Orkut means, of course, is "Please do the socially awkward thing of explicitly denying a social overture, to give us more accurate information about you."
That wasn't enough, however, so now they've added this linear scale of friendship that would be laughed out of a freshman sociology course, and then they say tell me the data is private. Of course it's not private -- that data isn't for me, it's for Orkut. I don't need it in the first place, because I am a monkey, descended from a long line of such monkeys, whose main talent consists of keeping track of relationships. Measured on the time scale of our social capacity, fire is a recent invention and agriculture is still a novelty.
The "how good a friend are they" data is useless or worse for me, but useful for Orkut, because they are desperate to represent social networks numerically, which is why they keep adding things to an interface they should be subtracting things from. The problem isn't the cost or refinement of accepting a friendship transaction, the problem is that _friendship isn't a transaction_, something almost no social networking service understands.
Only LiveJournal gets this right. (Those who do not understand LiveJournal are doomed to repeat it, badly.) I get to claim that anyone is a friend, just like the real world, but the people I say are my friends have to take no action to refuse that pointer, also like the real world. This creates social, not technological controls: if I say I'm a friend of Steve Ballmer's, but according to his profile, he's never heard of me, that's my problem. Over on Ballmer's Orkut page, however, my claiming him as a friend creates both work and awkwardness for him, and none for me, the opposite of what name-dropping should do.
The attempt to fit the roundish-but-with-weird-protuberances peg of human congress into the square hole of transactional connections and bi-directional links is the problem. Orkut's changes to the friend interface do nothing to address the underlying badness of fit between friendship as mutual feeling over time and their desire to make it transaction because transactions are easier to code.