All ‘friends’ are not equal

PPC has recently appointed a new PR agency. They contacted me recently to ask if I would contribute some ideas for a potential opinion piece on social media, so I agreed to post a few thoughts here, for general reference.

These are the questions they wanted me to address:

– Should companies develop their own social networking tools? Are they better off trying to exploit existing networks?

– How should companies go about using social networking to promote their film/game/brand? What are the issues they need to be aware of? Are certain kinds of brands or products better suited than others?

– What effect will the opening up of sites like Facebook and Bebo to third parties have on social networking? Will it be beneficial to brand owners or cause more problems?

Well, let me begin by taking you back, if I may, to life before Facebook, to life before MySpace, before Friend Reunited or Classmates, before Instant Messenger or Hotmail, before you even knew how email worked or what the internet really was. That’s about a decade for me, I doubt it’s much longer than that for many of you.

You probably had just about the same number of substantial relationships in your life as you do now (and maybe more, given that life didn’t seem to be lived at a pace that starved you of every spare waking moment). You would have expressed these relationships through interaction, over the phone, by writing letters, and by meeting up. And, generally, the more established and unconditional the relationship, the less often you’d actually need to see or speak to each other to remain connected. This was your social network; the people in your life that mattered, for whatever reason. It still is. All that’s changed is the tools at your disposal to maintain and develop it.

The reality is that services like MySpace, Bebo and Facebook are just a souped-up rolodex. If you want to communicate one-to-one through any of these social networks you still have to use email-style messaging, phone-style VOIP or IM-style text chat. There seems to be this misconception that social networking sites have enabled us to somehow grow our circle of friends – that we now have the means to form and maintain hundreds, even thousands of relationships, because of these miracle tools that have enabled us all to become such good ‘friends’.

I would argue that, beyond the fifty or so people you have meaningful relationships with (a high proportion of whom are probably the same people you had meaningful relationships with over a decade ago), what you have is an audience. An audience consisting of friends, family, acquaintances from school, college and university, work colleagues, clients and suppliers, maybe even some people you can’t remember ever having met but who you’ve agreed to be friends with because they asked and it felt rude to decline.

Furthermore, when you scrutinise the tools and features that define the social networks, beyond email, chat and telephony services (all of which pre-date the social networks considerably), they are orientated towards communication with an audience. Take the Facebook wall – the essence of which is that you’re choosing to make a supposedly one-to-one correspondence visible to everybody you both know. Facebook status, one of my favourite features, is also totally indiscriminate in its reach, within your established sphere of influence.

Hugh Macleod is a well-known cartoonist and blogger whom I was fortunate to meet off the back of some screenings we co-ordinated for David Mackenzie’s movie HALLAM FOE. With over 1,200 friends he is what Facebook themselves now refer to as one of their ‘whales’, among whose ranks you will also apparently find Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand and Stephen Fry. By Hugh’s own admission, “I don’t go around looking for friends, but it seems kind of rude to say no to somebody.”

Hugh was recently described in an article in The Guardian as ‘Britain’s most successful Facebooker’. This label does Hugh a substantial injustice, insofar as it puts the cart of his Facebook following before the horse of many years establishing his reputation as a prolific original thinker in the spaces of marketing, social media and, through his cartoons, life in general. This plaudit is also interesting in the choice of term used to define his popularity; success. If social networking is about success, and we’re playing a numbers game in terms of how we choose to measure it, then we’re surely back in the dark ages of web v1, and the mentality of the playground. If web 2.0 has been about anything for me it must be the growing acceptance that all hits – and, by extension, ‘friends’ – are not equal.

At another level, Hugh’s popularity on Facebook is genuinely indicative of success, since he engages this following as an audience, as he does his readership on Twitter, and that of his blog. In this respect Hugh uses Facebook not so much a social networking tool as a social publishing tool, as, I would suggest, do many of the rest of us, albeit for the benefit of a smaller, more familiar crowd.

Re-reading this post I can see that I haven’t answered any of the questions I was charged with addressing, but that I’m on my way to doing so quite definitively. I can see a couple I can take now before I go, and I’ll come back for the rest.

“Should companies develop their own social networking tools?” Depends entirely on the type of company, but, for the most part, good god no. “Are they better off trying to exploit existing networks?” Maybe, but only if they quit trying to be my new best friend, and start getting to know my audience.
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Interesting factoid: The first 3D movie from a major studio (Warner Brothers) was HOUSE OF WAX (1953) directed by Andre de Toth. Unfortunately de Toth was blind in one eye, and could only see in two dimensions. History records that he would consistently come to the rushes and want to know what everybody was so excited about.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Dan I have enjoyed your last 2 posts on social networking and Ploggle. You must be relishing time to write, and fluently. I too have picked up my keyboard ‘pen’, licking a Communication into shape, a short publication after too long an interval…….. both in waiting…. Call me for some editing feedback. GL

  • Ted

    Liked this so much that I put a mention & link on MY HALLAM FOE BLOG…

    HALLM FOE BLOG

    Thanks!

    Ted