This is a little bit genius. One of the new features of FriendFeed (a Twitter-like thingie) is “fake following”. That means you can friend someone but you don’t see their updates. That way, it appears that you’re paying attention to them when you’re really not. Just like everyone does all the time in real life to maintain their sanity. Rex calls it “most important feature in the history of social networks” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s one of the few new social features I’ve seen that makes being online buddies with someone manageable and doesn’t just make being social a game or competition.
I was actually just wishing for a feature like this for Twitter. Twitter works now because it’s popular but not that popular. The list of people I follow is manageable, has room to grow, and is populated mostly by people I’m genuinely interested in getting updates from. But what happens if the service achieves Facebook levels of popularity? Then I’m stuck with either rejecting people or letting the signal get lost in the noise. Fake following is a way out.
But is it a good way out? I’m not so sure. For one thing, as Merlin Mann says, “the whole idea’s pathetic on a number of levels.” For another, the very existence of the option imposes costs on all users, whether they use it or not. If a friend realizes you missed one of his updates on Twitter, for now he knows it’s an honest mistake. If fake following becomes an option, your friends will have to wonder if perhaps you’re using it on them. The option breeds distrust.
A feature like this should come with a way to signal honesty. Let users declare on their profiles that they haven’t enabled the option. Or if they have, let the world know that they may be fake followers. One group of people you can trust, another that’s a little more dubious.
Twitter is perhaps even more susceptible than Facebook to “boyd’s law” as stated by Cory Doctorow: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” Facebook is great for deep networking, for keeping track of who I know where and what they’re generally doing with their lives; I don’t care how big my friend list gets. Twitter’s more like a live conversation, creating a social sixth sense of what my friends and other interesting people are thinking and doing. I’ll have to be selective about who I follow to keep it valuable.
I’m with Mann on this one: if you’re going to be a publisher of updates, have a thick skin. Don’t be offended by friends who don’t follow you and be ruthlessly selective about who you follow. Don’t waste your time on updates you don’t care about.
And if you hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not the end of the world. You can still be Facebook friends, after all.
[Via Tyler Cowen.]