Social Climbing in Social Networks

30 Jul

Accepting Uncle Leo's friend request can bring its own set of problems for social network users

I had (briefly) planned to title this post ‘My Facebook friends can beat up your Facebook friends’ but thought better of it. Regular readers of this space will know that I am particularly conflicted when it comes to social networking companies. On the one hand I am increasingly impressed with how viral the better social networking platforms have become, how they can augment communications between broad groups of people, how they can facilitate social group overlap and instant information exchange, and how they can become–broadly speaking–quite robust as a communications tool. On the other hand, I’ve also found most to be vastly overvalued by the capital markets, too focused on branding and customer acquisition without sufficient development of applications and tools to help drive lasting, “sticky” value to users, and too vulnerable to being displaced by other social networks.

All that being said, as a lay consumer, I am endlessly fascinated by how emerging technologies typically alter cultural dynamics–both positively and negatively. We have all heard the lamentations in the popular media about how ubiquitous cell phone usage has turned us into a nation of unrefined bufoons blathering away about that evening’s dinner plans in line at the Post Office. In recent years, that might have prompted unapproving scowls from other patrons, but too often in today’s climate those “other patrons” are now too busy recounting their own details of last night’s cocktail party or their upcoming dental surgery on cell phones of their own to bother pointing out your faux pas. To hear talk radio tell it, it’s all become one big cacophony of jackasses.

Accept that premise of not, it’s hardly surprising to witness the crumbling of social peccadilloes when seemingly everyone is engaged in the same untoward behavior without any particular rebuke from society as a whole. Those of a certain age might remember when it was almost unthinkable for a gentlemen to enter a dining establishment sans blazer…and sometimes even sans blazer and tie. If one did, the penalty was to end up wearing the house blazer they kept in the coat closet, which typically was ill-fitting, came with a silly embroidered crest over the breast pocket, and had some vague coating on the right sleeve reminiscent of dried fettucine alfredo.

But times do change and in the current climate most dining establishments, with the exception of the most formal of restaurants, would fail if they insisted on adhering to that dress code standard today. Nowadays, in any given restaurant in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, the guys in the tailored suits are often not the power players—they are the accountants, agents and media consultants who work for the billionaires sitting next to them in the same booth wearing velour track suits, ironic T-shirts, and three-day razor stubble.

In the web 2.0 world, one social “slight” becoming increasingly evident among social networks has become the winnowing or “window-dressing” of Friends’ Lists. It’s subtle, but pervasive. One particularly cynical practice is for a new user to a social network to carpet bomb their friends’ email boxes with friend requests in the interest of getting a critical mass of friends and contacts and, by extension, links to other–ahem–more important friends and contacts. Once established the user then begins to quietly push the first batch of friends outside the herd, if you will. Indeed, de-friending has become such a common issue that a new wave of widget providers are rolling out new tools to manage this practice–secretly, of course.

To be sure, winnowing friends’ lists is to be expected in this new age of social networks. In some cases, it would be inappropriate not to allow the practice–particularly when it comes to removing an ex or former boss whose continued access to your updates and profile would be–gee, I don’t know–awkward? But I am not referring to that practice. Indeed, my comments are specifically around the ‘social climbing’ aspect of social networking. As more people use their social networking page as a business tool, this practice will only become more common. Two independent consultants who work with the tech start-up community confessed to me recently that they window dress their LinkedIn and Facebook pages quite regularly. Their rationale? A lot of their business comes from other VCs and successful entrepreneurs, so they felt that as they were Googled and Facebooked and LinkenIn’d by prospective employers, they wanted those prospective employers to see an impressive array of bold-faced silicon valley VC and CEO names…not crazy Uncle Leo. As such, these advisors strategically “friended” every tech industry notable, bold-faced or not, that they came across in the hope that they might be able to get to other, even more notable, bold-faced “friends” through that contact.

Cynical as it may appear, the practice of window-dressing friends has been going on since time immemorial. People were quietly dropped off the Holiday card lists,  return calls to unwanted parties–when returned at all, that is–were strategically timed in order to get voicemail, messages were conveniently lost by the maid, or the new admin, or due to “bad cell coverage.” We are all, to a certain extent, judged by the company we keep. Guilt by association, if you will. What web 2.0 social networks have done is simply take all the subtlety out of it. Furthermore, truth be told, we all do it to a certain extent. Next time you open your Facebook or MySpace or LinkedIn profile, chances are excellent that you’ve got a few friend requests sitting in your in-box aging like a fine wine. You are not ready to archive them quite yet, but you are not ready to admit them to the party either lest they make an ass of themselves once inside, put wine glasses down on your expensive stereo equipment, and generally embarrass you. So, they stand there behind that red velvet rope, waiting for your decision. I say, admit just about everyone whose call you’d return in normal circumstances. If they don’t merit that level of “friendship”, then listing them as a friend at all rather distorts the entire concept.

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