Last night, I wrote about the largely unstated but well known rule-of-thumb for Twitter: That people with more followers than the number of people they are following tend to be better people to follow. Such a ratio cannot exist on Facebook because unlike Twitter, it has a symmetric social graph — if you friend someone, they have to accept your friend request or else there is absolutely no connection (not including Fan pages). This puts additional pressure on you to accept all friend requests. It can be a burden.
And I think Facebook realizes that, which is why we’re getting a post today on its blog basically explaining that it’s okay not to accept all requests.
Specifically, the post notes that if you click the button to ignore a friend request, the person who requested you will not be notified about it. Likewise, if you accept someone as a friend, but then later un-friend them, they will not be notified (though they will no longer be able to see your information, nor will you be able to see their’s). And if you don’t want to accept them, but don’t want them to be able to attempt to friend you again, Facebook recommends simply leaving their request pending in your queue.
It’s interesting that Facebook felt the need to go over this again. That seems to speak to confusion over the symmetric nature of its social graph in a world of Twitter and other social services in which the “follower” is more common than the “friend.” Of course, there are benefits to this type of network, the key one being privacy.
But the problem is that as Facebook continues to grow and evolve, we’re getting more and more requests from random people that we don’t actually know. But many of us are using Facebook to spread information just as we do with Twitter (status updates, sharing links, etc), and there is some desire to allow these random people to be able to see some of what you are doing on Facebook. This is why Facebook created the “Everyone Button” and Fan Pages, but both of those seem to complicate the social graph, rather than simplify it.
The solution that I employ is to accept all Facebook friend requests but limit the people I do not actually know to a very basic profile using Facebook’s filters. I then hide many of these people from my main News Feed. The problem is that they still show up when I do things like search for something. It’s a less than ideal solution. Plus, many users of Facebook probably still aren’t using filters (or at least not using them well).
It will be interesting to see how Facebook deals with this issue going forward. Remember that they just purchased FriendFeed, which features a combination of an asymmetric social graph with great filters. I can’t help but wonder if Facebook won’t eventually switch to something like that.
Of course, we’re also hearing that they’re very close to launching their location functionality (just like Twitter recently did), which will once again highlight the importance of privacy. Almost all location-based services are currently symmetric, because while it’s one thing for random people to read your words or see what links you’re sharing, it’s another for them to know where you are. Because of that, on services like Loopt and Foursquare I stick pretty firmly to only accepting users that I actually know.
As they approach 300 million users, Facebook continually has the tough situation of having to deal with these issues while figuring out how to educate all their current users if they intend to make a change. Of course, having 300 million users is a problem a lot of social networks would like to have.
The main problem is that people’s real-world social graphs change often and automatically, while their virtual representations on Facebook change mostly uni-directionally and manually. In other words, friends come and go in real life; but on Facebook, they usually just come. Friend lists tend to get bloated over time because users have a harder time defriending each other virtually than in real life. And even if they are going to defriend each other virtually, it has to be a deliberative effort, unlike in real-life when you just stop seeing certain people.