The Friend

and the Follower

Why do we feel so alone when we’re supposed to be more connected than ever?

Audio version graciously read by Aisha Ricketts. Click the green arrow. Also on soundcloud.

This is Hessie.

Her world consists of many things — working out, seeing family and friends, traveling, and running her own business.

She’s got multiple social network profiles for herself and her business, and while she enjoys connecting with people it’s a lot to manage. Like most of us she’s dealing with a social web that’s more work than we realize; one where we struggle to keep up, live authentically, and get back as much as we put in.

Fifty years ago if you had 3,973 followers and hundreds of friends you could start revolutions, proselytize religions, and topple governments. But today you’d be lucky to get a retweet. The engagement rate on the social web approaches banner ad levels. Which makes sense, because that’s how we feel being ‘social’ these days, like a banner ad for our own personal brand.

We wonder… “Do I need more friends? Or just a few thousand more followers? Maybe my life isn’t engaging enough?”

These are questions we didn’t ponder before the social web; now they are a daily part of our life. They are a result of built-in conventions of the platforms we use that have gone largely unexamined in the last few years. We take them as truth and forget to ask: are they really serving our needs? Are they helping us connect to each other in meaningful ways?

With the ability to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ someone online now over a decade old — and over a billion people using them — isn’t it time to re-examine just what these social constructs are good for, what they fail at, and possibly, how to move beyond them?

The Friend

Dictionary.com has 6 definitions of the noun “Friend”.

The first entry is defined as a “person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” You may have some of these. They are there on your birthday. They call you up for no other reason than to just hang out. You see them when you need them and they do the same. These are the people you can not only count on, but also count on one hand.

The final and most recent definition of friend is a “person associated with another as a contact on a social-networking website.” If you are the average person, you have 649 of these. The last decade has seen rampant inflation of the number of friends each of us have online, with little to no improvement in the quality of friendship overall. And yet this Friend model has become the dominant way that we connect to each other. On Facebook, and on the many other social networks created since then.

Which begs a question: if we are to evolve and create new networks and services, won’t using this model just be adding to the inflation? Perhaps the state of friendship online is at a point of bankruptcy that’s forced us to constantly print more ‘friends’ just so our egos can stay afloat.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Given our average friend count, just who are these other 499 people? They have become a combination of anyone whom you have had any contact with, and those who you could find (or could find you) on Facebook. Basically an address book or contact list, only without address or contact info. Not ironically, Facebook is a book of faces that you are likely to recognize. Of course this is not without its uses, or else a billion people wouldn’t be using it.

Stuffed behind a button labeled “Friends” are 649 people we think may have some future use or purpose, like a half empty box of plastic forks on the bottom shelf of the pantry. We are hoarding friends. Somewhere in this mix of ex-boyfriends, ex-schoolmates and other future ex’s are a few real friendships. Somewhere, but not close to us, because that’s not how we use Facebook.

The truth is that Facebook is simply the best way to “keep up with the Joneses” in our lives. We don’t accept friend requests because we want to invite them into our inner circle of friendship. We do it because we want to know more about them…if not now, then at some point in the future. And invariably we compare ourselves to the Joneses and the other 648 people we’ve elected to keep tabs on.

Part of keeping up means sharing all the wonderful and interesting things in our lives. We want and need to share the painful and vulnerable emotions that make us feel human, yet precisely because of these large lists of friends we don’t do so. Instead we opt for the greatest hits of our lives; the posts that make us seem witty, interesting, caring, successful, living the good life, or at the very least a compelling life…certainly not boring or depressing, no matter how much it’s true. On social networks we are always crushing it, even if it’s crushing us.

This is of course nothing new, and keeping up with the Joneses has been a part of our humanity for a long time. However only in the last decade have we had 649 Joneses to choose from and algorithms to surface the most amazing stories daily from each of these Joneses. This hyper ‘compare and despair’ behavior often makes us feel isolated because other people don’t seem to be sharing what we are feeling. They are not sharing their despair with us. Even though it’s something we could connect to, it doesn’t often show up on social networks that involve friends and followers. That’s not the message of this medium.

Anonymous to the rescue?

So where can we find despair online? There’s no shortage of apps and services like Secret, Whisper, Yik Yak, Fade, Unseen, and Peek where despair is the main course. We feel safe to share our negative emotions there because we have no identity to uphold or to tarnish. The downside is that trolling and negative comments can quickly overwhelm most conversations.

Additionally, when we are fully anonymous we have few opportunities to build deeper relationships with others whom we open up to. Our identities last only as long as our post, and we end up being as transient as a dandelion seed in a momentary breeze.

The anonymous based networks have become essentially “friendless” in both the first and last definitions of the word. We have no real feelings of affection or personal regard for the people we communicate with on those networks, and even if we did, there isn’t a satisfying way to build a deeper connection.

It’s clear that we have taken the aversion to identity too far. But that’s not our only problem.

The Follower

The other dominant way of connecting to people online is the ‘asymmetric follow’ in which the person you connect to doesn’t have to reciprocate or follow you back.

This appears on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and even on Facebook via the Subscribe to feature. This is the default “public mode” where no expectations of privacy are given. These networks are where celebrities are found, and made. It’s also where the rest of us non-celebrities are, using the same platform in the same way, just without the legions of fans.

The median Twitter account has just one follower and hasn’t used their account since creating it. Yet if you look at just active Twitter users, the follower count rises to 117. That means 117 people have chosen to follow that person.

Remember Hessie from the beginning of this story? She has 3,973 followers, which would place her in the 99th percentile of Twitter users, and yet only a few followers interact with her regularly. Maybe that’s her fault because she hasn’t optimized her content enough. Maybe she just isn’t an engaging person. These are the value judgements our brain makes. But what if the fault lies not in us, but in how we are trying to use these platforms?

We have had this follower concept for a long time, just with another name: subscriber. This has been the default method of interaction for brands and publications for over a hundred years, and the internet brought the concept to smaller blogs and publications via RSS.

However, the ability to subscribe to actual people, both famous and ordinary, is a new form of connection. By making the subscribe or follow button the dominant construct, we are placed in the same convention that happens to work best for brands, celebrities, and publications. The subtext is that we all are brands, just not as big as the ones we follow. Or just not yet.

Brand first, person second

As soon as you have a ‘follower’ on social networks, you have an audience. When you have an audience, you need to perform. This performance is not for you, it’s for them. What do they want to see retweeted? What vines will they think are funny? What tweets will they think are clever? What short, sarcastic, and witty quip about something in the news cycle will best represent the brand we have become? And which hashtag should we include?

If you are a natural performer, this feeling of needing to please your audience will be familiar. If you are just a regular user of social networks — like the vast majority of the world — then this audience you have built (no matter the size) and the uneasy expectations they bring will start to feel… unnatural.

Celebrities trade fame for the price of being in the public eye. They trade being a person for being a recognized brand. This is their choice. Everyone else on social media also trades being a person for being a brand, but in almost all cases, the fame and recognition never come. That doesn’t stop our irrational brains from acting like a brand and censoring ourselves; ‘positioning’ who we are, staying glued to the notifications feed, tracking click-throughs and shares, and generally covering up the parts of us that allow for deeper connections.

This is the default setting for the dominant networks that we refer to as the social web. It’s the underlying structure that a generation of users have now grown up in. If they are often narcissistic and self-serving, it’s because they have to be. Their social life, at least online, is brand warfare.

Many identities

In the pre-social network era we operated online much differently. Our identities were decentralized and flexible based on what forum, chat room, or group we belonged to. On the Paintball forum we were one person and in the erotic literature newsgroup we were another and never the two shall meet. This allowed you to be yourself, whoever that was, at that moment in time and space.

But because of constructs like Friend / Follow, large swaths of people are now acting as brands almost all the time. We naturally want others to see us in a certain way. When we are with our grandmother we act in a certain way, which differs from the way we act with our drinking friends, coworkers, or people we see now and then at the coffee shop. Throughout the day we express who we are in different ways, each with their own style.

On social media, this gets reduced to one. All of our personalities are forced through one Twitter handle, one Instagram account, one Facebook name. It can literally be against their terms of service to be more than one person, to be who you are.

The result: our identity is streamlined to the safest and most widely appealing one, just like a good corporate brand.

What if we changed the medium? Would a different message emerge?

Another way

One of the things we’re thinking about while building the local web is how online interaction can better reflect our natural, offline world. We’ve been experimenting with giving patrons the ability to access multiple identities, including a default anonymous identity, choosing from an existing identity they’ve created, or even making a new one on the fly.

*we use the term “Patrons” instead of “Users”

In the above example, Joe has several identities he’s created. In localweb.is/my-little-pony he doesn’t want to be Joe, he would rather be J-Pony. He isn’t ashamed or trying to hide anything, he just prefers not to mix his identities. That way he can build deep connections with those in the My Little Pony thread and still use the same platform to communicate with co-workers or others in his community.

We’re also considering what it will take to reconfigure privacy to a more natural state. On most social platforms you’re at the mercy of their policies; on their terms. They control your privacy, your identity, who you are…and you accept whatever access they provide. In almost all cases this means steering you into participating in ways they can monetize, instead of responding to how you actually use what they’ve built. What we need is to control our own privacy and identities, to express ourselves in whatever way feels right to each of us, without being watched.

As a social network, patrons on localweb.is have no ability to friend or follow, nor are there even formal profiles. There is no way to find out what other threads J-Pony is participating in, who his friends are, or what he says elsewhere on localweb.is. J-Pony only exists within the My Little Pony thread. If another patron wants to know more about J-Pony, they should do what we do in the real world; just ask. What do we get when we lose our friends, followers, and profiles? Freedom.

Instead of creating a maze of complicated privacy settings to protect your content from stalkers or the overly curious, we decided to simply eliminate the problem at the root. The presence of friends and followers changes the social dynamic from trust, immediacy, and intimacy to watching and being watched. This unhealthy construct has forced us to operate and reside in glass prisons of our own making. It is counter-intuitive to the deep and various ways that we as humans express our identity.

After a decade of Friends and Followers it’s time to think about other ways of building the social web, of understanding the constructs we already have. We need to know which ones are working for us as people, not brands. What is helping us better connect to and communicate with each other, and what isn’t.

It’s time to start treating people as greater than the sum of their friends and followers.

Thanks to Nir Eyal, Cali Harris, Lizza Dwoskin, Anna Lee Court, and Rebecca Amy Todd for graciously giving us tough and thoughtful feedback on this post.

Learn more about how we’re building the Mile Wide Web.