Saturday, November 10, 2007

On 'Friends' and other associations


Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at:
http://www.educause.edu/node/167285. 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.


Having indicated that I would write something about Web2.0, I finally get round to doing something.  Have you ever wondered about the concept of 'friends' in social networking site?  I've been thinking for a long time that they dilute the meaning of friendship and try to address this here by appeal to some Buddhist teachings, particularly the Sigalovada Sutta...

This week's edition of Time Magazine (Europe) [dated 19 Nov. '07] appeared through my letter box this morning with a copy of 'You are not my Friend' by Joel Stein, a humorous essay on social networking sites, already available online.  Whilst many articles, especially in education, have tended to focus on the issue of privacy, Stein's article identified a tendency to embellish or fabricate one's image - so I suppose this means turning them into 'vanity spaces'!  However, the main issue was concerning the lack of differentation between one friend and another.

Whilst at the EDUCAUSE 2007 conference a delegate conveyed in flowing fashion her enthusiasm for Facebook.  Having taken a look at it, I asked about privacy options and she demonstrated various controls and seemed more than content with that, but whilst I thought that looked impressive I wasn't convinced.  (For a useful walkthrough of these options see e.g. Videojug's How to Stay Safe on Facebook).
All fine, but consider the different levels of access control:
  • Only me
  • Only my friends
  • some of my networks and all my friends
  • All of my networks and all my friends
There isn't much granularity at the level of 'friend' - in terms of profile views, when someone requests to be your friend you have only the option of granting access to your standard profile or a limited profile.   It's a homogeneous view, whereby each 'friend' (assuming access to the same profile view) can look at the same content (profile, contact details etc) as all the other friends: by implication, the information you share should take the lowest common denominator of all such 'friends.'  I expect this is typically just an acquaintance.

I have wondered why the concept of 'friend' has been flattened so severely and I expect there are a number of factors, not least cultural.  Whilst in Seattle, I chatted about this with a local and he related that in the U.S. it can be customary to use this term almost as soon as you have been introduced to someone, hence 5 minutes later, "Hey John, let me introduce you to my friend, Paul."   Specifically with regard to Facebook, I find there is more to it when I consider the original context.  The physical 'facebooks' have been traditionally provided at some U.S. Universities, including Harvard, for first year students - hence 'Freshman Facebooks.'  Thus, I think they were designed for peers, who were all 'in the same boat'.   Since then, the online Facebook has grown far beyond the original scenario and remit, but perhaps the model for relationships hasn't changed much.

Wondering how the notion of 'friend' can reflect greater depth and breadth I have sought insight from another source, the teachings of the Buddha.  Most of the canonical texts are concerned with training the mind, especially through meditation practice, but a few are concerned with general lay life, including the Sigalovada Sutta, for which a couple of translations from Pali are available at Access to Insight.

In this sutta, the Buddha is instructing Sigala, a young man who has recently lost his father, on how to conduct oneself - we might say today on how to be a model citizen!  The Buddha focuses on how to cultivate a virtuous path and treats relationships, particularly how to discern between good/genuine and bad/rogue friends.  That in itself is probably very useful for any generation, physical or Net.  However, I would like to highlight here the later section that introduces 6 orthogonal relationships, which starts:
And how, young householder, does a noble disciple cover the six quarters?

The Buddha groups 6 kinds of relationships by reference to the cardinal points (East, South, North, West) plus Nadir and Zenith:
  • East: Parents
  • South: Teachers
  • West: Spouse
  • North: Friends and Associates
  • Nadir: Servants and Employees
  • Zenith: Ascetics and Brahmans
For each relationship type, there are different kinds of service that can be provided to enable the relationship to prosper in a wholesome way.  Whatever the value system, the orthogonality is important to enable these different relationships to be distinguished and clarified.

How may we apply this to social networking sites in the educational context?  I would suggest that a more universal (and robust) system would reflect this by allowing one to identify one or more relationship dimensions - what these are I don't know, but although society has changed enormously on the surface, I expect that underneath there is little variation.  You could make these specific, more granular, so for the educational context determine what kinds of relationships are characteristic of the educational environment? Some examples:
  • Peer
  • Mentor
  • Supervisor - supervisee
  • Lecturer - student
  • Tutor - tutee
  • Fresher - final Year student
Then consider the kinds of activities that might be modelled in learning environments.  How can relationships be fruitfully nurtured?   How might this be implemented?   When registering you'd perhaps check one or more boxes for relationship type.  From then on, how one communicates, the options for  sharing etc. would depend on the relationship type.  As a simple example, in the profiling information, a tutor might provide a phone contact for a tutee, but email for a class.

Another aspect is depth of association, which can be at many levels.  The following 7 level model shows progressively closer and closer associations:
  • Meeting up
  • Getting Closer
  • Feeling a liking for one another
  • Respecting the other
  • Moral Support
  • Joining In
  • Influencing and instilling behaviour in one another
[This is taken from a section on associations in Chapter 1 of 'A Manual of Peace,' teachings based on the Mangala Sutta ('Blessing of life')]

It seems sensible to me to share differently with those colleagues we know only slightly compared with those we have known for many years.  Some actions would be more appropriate only when you know others after quite some time, especially those that are disruptive and otherwise invasive.

How might this translate online?   There are a couple of aspects: the first is again concerned with the registration process - some marker can be indicated to reflect how well you know someone.  A series of questions might be asked and based on the responses a suggested level might be proffered. Although it is extra effort, it should save in the long run.   In addition, a longitudinal element may also be introduced whereby the options available evolve according to how a relationship develops, similar to how boxes on the BBC Web site would get darker the more you clicked on them.

If the right structures are put in place, I think a system like this could lead to more dependable social networking-based approaches to many systems.  For example, it should allow appropriate lines of authority as needed for a research genealogy project similar in output to individual projects like the Mathematics Genealogy Project . It might indeed herald a FOAF-based approach suggested by Stuart Yeates that should be far more sustainable - present approaches don't scale very well, as mentioned in some ponderings.

Submitted by Paul Trafford (University of Oxford) on June 25, 2008 - 2:03pm.

Complaints directed at many present systems relate to third party commercial organisations gaining unintended access to private data.  As individual users, we often have to read a lot of small print and still we don't really know who will have access to what, how and for what purposes.  Further, many changes can be made to our personalised environment and often we don't realise how our choices affect the access to our data, especially when expanding the use of tools available.

To address these concerns we can extend the orthogonality above into another dimension (the 7th as it happens!) and reserve this for [especially commercial] organisations.  There can be different groups reflecting the types of organisations, ranging from makers of the social networking site, through your alma maters and charities you support to others you've never even heard of.  In a similar manner to relationships with individuals, you can define what access these classes of organisations can have to your data - it should all be clearly accessible, albeit with suitable abstraction, where you can drill down to identify the details of any organisation that has access to your data and clearly see at a glance what they can use.  All system features (such as applications that you plug in) should be dependent upon these settings.  If you are offered an app from an unknown organisation, then various details about the organisation should be readily available and what the use of the app [not just by you, but by anyone] will mean in terms of access to your data. 

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