In praise of semipermeable social boundaries

In recent weeks, a number of folk have been writing in praise of Facebook’s closed-ended social model. Dare Abasanjo and Robert Scoble write that they prefer discussion threads that are not polluted by the unwelcome voices of strangers, as they are in FriendFeed and Twitter.

I’d like to take a contrary position in favor of a more open model of online social interaction. The Facebook model is biased against getting to know new people. The Twitter model is biased in favor of getting to know new people – slowly and gradually.

With Facebook, you can see comments from a friend of a friend you don’t know. But you can’t discover very much about them if they have their profile configured in the default and typical manner. And if you want to learn more about them, then you need to request mutual “friend” status – which is socially not done if you don’t know the person.

With Twitter, you can see someone’s twitter stream (with the most common configuration), and choose to follow them without imposing any obligation. People can gradually get each others attention with retweets and @ hails – follow back if congenial, and no offense if not.

Some people feel more comfortable in a closed social world, in which there are high barriers to meeting new people. I feel more comfortable in a more open world in which the barriers are lower and semipermeable. I’m not against closed groups and private spaces – I just want to use them selectively and share easily instead of being steered to a closed conversation as the default model.

Many of the commenters on danah boyd’s post on the relative social models of Facebook and Twitter felt more comfortable conversing Facebook where only their friends can see it. I can see this for private topics – but a lot of Facebook conversation seems to me like ordinary light conversation – where there’s no harm in people stopping by – and not being able to learn about the people you’re talking to is even more exclusive than 3d life.

It is true that in FriendFeed, where the comments are threaded and visible, a famous person like Scoble can attract trolls and unwelcome visitors. It seems to me that the solution to this is to allow viewers to filter or segregate people one is not following; and to block trolls.

At a session in the recent readwriteweb conference I asked the audience who had gotten to know someone gradually, through social media. Everyone raised their hand. The semipermeable boundaries on Twitter help this to happen.

There are significant social design challenges in helping people manage the intimacy gradient in online social networks. Defaults are very sticky. Often when there are choices, those choices are presented in ways that are incomprehensible and inaccessible – keeping the default choices sticky – and giving tremendous power to a few designers to shape big parts of our social lives. A better way to do this is to offer progressive choices and variations that make sense to people in their social contexts.

This isn’t easy. Does anyone have examples of applications with well-used, progressive, non-default choices? Any good examples of such choices in social software? Insights welcome.

12 thoughts on “In praise of semipermeable social boundaries”

  1. I’m happy with a choice of open and closed options. I view twitter as a sort of virtual conference–I may not know you but we have some common interests that might lead to getting to know each other better. I view facebook as a reunion. Although I have a few friends I don’t know otherwise, they are either essentially referrals from people I know well or, in a few cases, self-promoters whose cause I feel some sympathy with. Oddly, once those people have formed a connection, they almost never interact in any other way.

    To me, the two media co-exist pretty nicely which may be a complete non-answer to your question.

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