Choose your friends wisely…

Can too many 'friends' be a bad thing when it comes to on-line social networks?

Well, Google launched + a while back and like lots of people I've been tinkering with its functionality. And, I've been thinking about what it means to have a 'friend' on-line and what value all those supposed 'friendships' really offer.

I've tried to keep my different social media profiles separate. So Facebook is primarily social, Linked In is 100% business connections (people I really know), Twitter is all about sharing interesting stuff relating to what I do work-wise (absolutely hate it when people tweet mundane junk like what they fancy for lunch and unfollow them if they do it a lot).  When a business connection tries to friend me on Facebook, I tell them I'd rather connect on Linked In. Mates on Linked In? Only if they work in a similar field as a rule.

Where does that leave brands on Facebook then? Many of the travel cos I work with want to develop their Facebook presence. They see it as a great way to really engage with their customers and prospects. So they have pages which people can choose to 'like'. If you do this, the brand's wall posts show up in your news stream.

I did this with a bunch of them. And before I knew it there were so many posts from brands in my news stream they swamped the stuff from my friends. I do wonder where this will all end up. For the majority of brands hiting their 'like' button is just saying 'hey plug your products at me'. I can't see people doing this for long. I laboriously went back to every brand page I'd 'like'd on Facebook and 'unlike'd them. That was another interesting learning - it's much easier to 'like' than to 'unlike'. In fact I had to google it to find out. And try 'unliking' something using the Facebook iPhone app. I still haven't worked out how to that.

I decided to try a little experiment and set up a new Facebook account just to follow brands.

It taught me some interesting things. First you can't set up a Facebook account without connecting it to an email account. First time I did this I connected it to my gmail account which I don't use much. I was flabberghasted to see that within moments of opening up my brand new virgin Facebook account it was already recommending people to 'friend' - people I knew really well.


It was of course interrogating my gmail contacts - and there are lots of them! It was frankly a bit spooky. I deleted this Facebook account, created a brand new email account on yahoomail with no contacts, no mail, nothing, and used this to set up a new Facebook account. It was with some satisfaction that I saw an empty 'People You Might Know' box. I then started 'liking' various brands using my new account. Each time I got an annoying pop-up box that made me enter a random 'captcha' number before I could proceed - to prove I was a 'real' person. To avoid this all I had to do was give Facebook my mobile phone number so it could then validate the account by sending me a text message with a unique code. So, I did this. To be honest, using a Facebook account without doing this would be insanely frustrating.

You know what happened? Facebook now knows that two different Facebook accounts have the same mobile phone number associated with them - so it suggested to me on my new account that I might know 'Jeremy Head'. Scary. And given that the number was asked for and offered up in the context of account 'security' to me rather duplicitous.

What this really showed me is that Facebook is utterly determined to connect you to as many people as possible.

The basic premise is the more connections people have with each other, the more data there is  to mine and the more potential 'likes' and 'shares' there will be when a brand advertises something on a profile. Every time you become 'friends' with someone on Facebook it's like sticking your email address on a load of new advertiser databases.

Linked In provided some interesting insight on this subject too. Linked In has always (in my opinion) been about 'proper' contacts. If you use the free basic level service you can't connect with random people. In theory you have to say how you are connected - 'we worked together at XXXX ltd' for example.

But... there is a 'friend' option. And increasingly I get people I don't know trying to connect with me on Linked In by saying we are 'friends'. Random people from India or China in particular. I also had an amusing email exchange with someone I've never met in Devon who does similar stuff to me who wanted to connect on Linked In as we were in her opinion 'friends'. She was a bit miffed when I pointed out that we'd never met and that saying we were friends when we'd never met was basically a lie.

It occured to me that in this instance though, Linked In might have mined our mutual contacts and worked out that we have a connection twice removed in common and suggested to her that she might know me. Maybe I should have accepted the invitation? She actually seemed like a genuinely interesting person!

By doing this Linked In kind of undermines itself. There's an interesting tension here between the need to keep it business-like - make 'proper connections - and the need to get people to connect to as many people as possible to make the network more interesting and valuable to potential advertisers. From a user perspective, being left to choose my own connections seems far more appropriate. I build the right network for me.

Back to google+. Many commentators point out that it's about google getting its hands on people's connections and their 'likes' (or '+1's in google-speak) and using this to make search results more personalised and more relevant. You can see that this will be really powerful. If I'm signed into google when I search I now already see relevant pages that friends on google+ have  '+1'd being pushed up the search results.

But too many 'friends' - rather like too many brands in my personal Facebook newstream - will mean the results could be less and less useful. Someone that an algorithm (which is totally focussed on making me connect with as many people as possible) suggested should be my 'friend', thinks this hotel (or whatever else I am searching for) is amazing. Should I value that opinion any more than someone I don't know at all? I'm not sure.

So... I'm thinking more and more about the quality of my social networks rather than the size of them. Maybe I should have a clear out and disconnect from all the people that frankly I can't remember why I friended in the first place? Ultimately that network could be influencing the way search engines serve up results when I am looking for stuff, the sorts of ads I get served up and who knows what else.

Perhaps we should let our online connections be more like our offline ones. Do you want an algorithm to tell you who should be your friend?

How do you use social media for connecting with people?


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