The Finances of Friendship in a Social Media Stock Market

Here’s the beginning of an interesting article called “The Social Media Bubble,” from earlier this week on the Harvard Business Review blog:

I’d like to advance a hypothesis: Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.

During the subprime bubble, banks and brokers sold one another bad debt — debt that couldn’t be made good on. Today, “social” media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.

Call it relationship inflation.
Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word “relationship” is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with. [via all things d]

Such a strong start, but unfortunately author Umair Haque loses me pretty quickly. Indeed, this notion of “relationship inflation” is something I’ve been ruminating on for some time, and while Haque lays out some interesting points about the tenuous and ofttimes dangerous ties that bind online, he doesn’t ever fully make good on his principal metaphor. I’ll try.

Friendship is a currency of sorts; you trade it (loyalty) for services (listen to my problems, help me move). Social media is weakening that currency by causing an unnatural inflation. To wit, say there are three levels of friendship:

Tier 3: You have each other’s email addresses
Tier 2: You have each other’s phone numbers
Tier 1: You’re in each other’s speed dials

Let’s assign a monetary value to each one:

Tier 3: $5 worth of friendship
Tier 2: $10 worth of friendship
Tier 1: $100 worth of friendship

Now, what if you threw in another level? Tier 4: Facebook friends. You only need a dollar’s worth of friendship to reach Tier 4. But there are so many people on there whose emails you don’t have, and you wouldn’t use if you did. So with all these dollar friendships floating around, having/using an email address can’t be worth just five measly dollars anymore. Bump that up to $7. Well, if email addresses has risen by 40%, then so should phone numbers. Tier 2 is now worth $14. And Tier 1? A cool buck-forty.

I totally admit that this is unscientific (and doesn’t reflect a proper model of economic inflation), but you see my point.

Here’s a scenario. Your friend is having a birthday party. He’s invited a particular group of people to attend. If he were a company, this might be first round financing. If it’s a close friend, you’re attending that party no matter what; you’ll be an angel because you want the company to succeed.

Say that friend is second tier. You weigh your potential ROI. Will I know enough people there to justify the hour on the subway? Plus it’s freaking cold tonight. Will he miss my presence, or could he not care less? If it’s going to put a rent in our relationship, I’m going to go; if not, I’m staying local. It’s a case by case determination, based on your own personal friendship white paper. And if you decide you’re going to go, you actually will — you pledge an investment and you make good on it. You’ll have fortified the partnership.

Now imagine your strictly-facebook friend is having a birthday party. This is one of those dozens of people about whom you say “we’re friends on facebook,” because you don’t feel quite right calling them real friends. Now this fellow invited his entire facebook friend base. It’s a social IPO. According to the invite page, 200 people have RSVP’d yes. Including you, though you haven’t really been friends with this guy since high school and if it weren’t for facebook there’s no way you’d be invited. You haven’t spoken (not counting occasional wall posts) in over a year, since that time you ran into each other at that off-off Broadway play. But because you’re friends on facebook you’re invited to his party. And because you’re invited to his party you feel like you should go.

I’ll just buy a couple shares, you say, if they’re under $3. No way I’m bringing a gift. You’re not expecting this guy’s friend stock to rise; this fete isn’t guaranteeing the rekindling of a meaningful relationship. And it isn’t until you’re on the way to the bar that you realize there’s really no good reason for you to go this party at all; you could easily turn around and neither you nor he would think twice. This chap’s never going to deliver on your investment. And frankly, you don’t really care, because even though you responded with “Thanks for the invite! Can’t wait to see you!” neither his inviting you en masse, nor your replying in kind, holds much intrinsic value. So you show up, you spend a Friday night (maybe you have a good time. bonus.), and come next year, you might make the invite list again. Are you better friends for it? I wager you’re not. He won’t call you when his girlfriend breaks up with him. You won’t call him when you’ve got to get your bureau into a 4th floor walk up.

And yet, according to the internet, you’re friends. Public records confirm it. Facebook: social media’s SEC.

Maybe if we just called this inflated friendship something else I wouldn’t find it so infuriatingly degrading. Instead of facebook friends, we could have something else. Compubuds. E-lies. Anything to remind us that we’re playing with Monopoly money, so we’re less prone to confuse value with volume and to ensure that friendship doesn’t go the way of the Dollar.

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2 responses to “The Finances of Friendship in a Social Media Stock Market

  1. I recently deleted a lot of people whom I was “friends” with on facebook. Specifically people I wasn’t friends with and hadn’t seen in upwards of a decade (the blogger made the cut and the internet still says we are friends). To myself, I referred to this as “culling the herd.” Which sounds a lot more gruesome when I say it out loud…anyway. I recently overheard strangers in a store using the exact same term. Where am I going with all of this? Not sure, but I totally came up with that term.

  2. Word. I still stick with phrases like “guy/girl I know”. And when I do use that phrase, roughly 50% of the time, it’s to be honest about the nature of the relationship. But it also means “god, I wish I didn’t know this person but I do”.

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