In Social Networks, All Friends Are Not Created Equal

As part of a consulting gig, I interviewed a group of college students the other day. When I do this kind of thing, I spend a lot of time asking them about how they use their school’s Web site, what they like, what they don’t like, what they’d like to see — that kind of thing. I also ask them about how they use the Web in general, especially how social networking and social media fit into their online lives.

Normally the answers about how they use social networking are pretty predictable — right on par with overall usage trends. But in this interview, I heard something I’d never heard anyone say before, and it really got me thinking.

“So,” I asked, “Would you be interested in joining a Facebook group sponsored by your school?”

An innocent enough question, to be sure, and one where I had thought I’d get an answer like “sure” and we’d move on to figure out what they’d like to see on the site. But this day I got an answer I never expected to hear.

“No way!” exclaimed one student.

“Why?” I asked, puzzled that this bright young man from an Ivy League school would be down on using social networking to stay in touch with his college.

“Because it’s Facebook. I don’t want the school and my professors to see what’s on my profile. I don’t want to be their friend.”

I asked him why. And he gave me an answer that marketers looking at social networking need to pay attention to.

“Because the only way you survive as a student is to compartmentalize,” he explained. “There’s school, there’s work, and there’s your personal life. You don’t want them to blur together.”

All the other students in the group heartily agreed. I just started to worry.

Why? Because this student’s answer revealed something that most of us haven’t spent enough time thinking about. In our rush to jump on to the social media marketing bandwagon, have we missed the basic question of whether our customers and prospective customers even want to be our “friends” at all?

And what does the term “friend” really mean in the context of social networking? Is it a simple word that we’ve all taken for granted? Is “compartmentalization” that big of an issue?

No doubt the barrier between what’s personal and what’s public has been somewhat tenuous since the beginning of the Internet. Balancing anonymity and accountability, privacy and openness have been controversial issues for a long time. However, it’s been the explosion of social media (tied in with a simultaneous explosion in networked culture) that really heated up the old debates and created new dilemmas that none of us ever worried about as little as three to five years ago.

How much should we say about ourselves on our blogs? What’s appropriate to tweet out to the rest of the world? Should we worry that a future employer is going to see that innocent party picture we posted and get the wrong idea about us?

Do the kids involved in “sexting” understand that those “innocent” pictures they pass back and forth might live on forever on some Web site or, worse yet, get them in some pretty serious trouble? When does a Facebook “friend” cross the line into something else? Is the whole concept of “privacy” obsolete?

Clearly not. Many people who are new to social networking might revel in reconnecting with old friends and marketers might salivate over the possibilities inherent in a system that can gather remarkable amounts of information about its users.

Nonetheless, others fear the implications of what happens when the “compartments” in our lives start to blur together. The Facebook News Feed Revolt may have been one of the first major examples of this rising social (networking) anxiety, but as the media continues to salaciously beat on the “sexting” drum and more employers make social network scanning a routine part of hiring, it’s become apparent that not being compartmentalized comes with consequences, at least among more savvy consumers — for now.

That’s why that student’s answer was so jarring. Over the last couple of years, my clients have asked me to somehow work “this social networking thing” into the work that my company does. It doesn’t surprise me, either. With books like “The Wuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business” and “Tribes” selling by the truckload, social networking conferences packing them in, and the non-stop buzz about social media, it’s not surprising that we’re all looking for ways to get in on it.

But even if we want to network with our customers to “build our businesses,” nobody seems to be asking, “What if they don’t want to network with us?” They might now. But if the young man I was speaking with is any indication, they might not want to in the future.

As privacy decreases and the compartments we all maintain in our lives start to collapse, it seems reasonable that consumers will push back. It’s not that they’re not going to use it, but rather they’re not going to let us in on it if they can help it.

Does this mean that using social networking to connect with consumers is a waste of time? Obviously not, but it’s probably going to get more difficult until we can work out ways of keeping the compartments separate while still being open enough to engage in the conversation.

Perhaps the answer is that the systems themselves need to begin to recognize this need for compartments by allowing us to more finely control who among our friends gets to see what. Some of this exists now, but only in a crude way that recognizes maybe only two or three levels of access (the public can see this, my “friends” can see this, only some of my “friends” can see this).

What’s needed is the ability to compartmentalize our online personas in a more granular fashion that recognizes the different types of relationships we have in our lives. The whole world — your boss, your business contacts, your social acquaintances, your close friends, your spouse, and your kids — don’t need to have access to the same information about you, but you’d probably like them to have some access to you, just in varying degrees.

All “friends” are not equal. And if we don’t start recognizing that fact (such as with some sort of “Circle of Friends” functionality that recognizes the difference), the compartmentalized consumer might just start shutting us out in ever-increasing numbers.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 11 one-day events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing. Register 30 days in advance and get a $40 discount!

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.