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One of my (many) pet peeves about social networking is the way that relationships are modelled.  I actually went into this on my first presentation I’ve done, down at BarCampBrighton3: The Evolution of the Social Web.  We humans are complex entities; in many ways our relationships are so elastic and contextual that we can’t realistically model these in a simple social network.

In my eyes, social networking began when the communication between user’s profiles became the primary function of a site; obviously user profiles had existed for a long while before social networking became a used term.  Because of this evolution, most sites still use what I call the ‘flat-friends’ model, i.e. every connection is of the same type and depth.

My guess is that it wasn’t until MySpace became so huge and it began attracting the music/artist crowd that this became particularly noticeable.  On MySpace (and many others), your connections could be offline-friends, those you only know online, bands, companies, charities, etc with no sense of differentiation other than artist profiles have an embedded music player.

Facebook caught on because it circumvented the issues with the explosion in popularity of MySpace and the like by looking more at your actual identity.  You sign up as yourself, with no alias or screen name and are encouraged to find people you know.  For the most part, this has been my experience.  Later on, Facebook Pages were added to bring in some of the content MySpace had in terms of bands and brands but many of these already had an independent or sponsored Facebook Group, which I think clouded the issue and on the whole my guess is that Facebook Pages are perhaps less popular than MySpace profiles for non-personal content.

So back to ‘friends’…  My feeling has always been in my pop-social-psychology frame of mind is that this model isn’t sustainable.  Firstly separating the people from the other kinds of content and recognising the specific needs of a sector (such as the music industry) rather than generic profiles and secondly to look at our relationships with other people.

Facebook has great granular privacy settings and it also has lists but I’d say that for less technical users these aren’t used to their fullest and you still see loads of open profiles with no restrictions.  Part of this is education and the fact that repercussions of exposing your media output through your teenage years might not have materialised for many yet.  An issue aside from privacy is how you present yourself to different audiences.

What I’ve found is that however subtly, we most/all have a different was of acting and reacting as part of a different group of people, from extremes like friends you go out for a beer with to contacts or acquaintances through work.  Perhaps this is less true of more techie people, that often use their blog and everything else a cohesive online identity but I believe that even then we have our lives split into personas.

Each persona could have connections (rather than the term ‘friends’) shared, like a colleague at work you also go out for a beer with but this enables us to use a single profile/social network to present these faces to the world and arrange our relationships across them.  Plaxo have started this off by allowing a work/friends/family set of data to your profile, which isn’t a bad start but I’d like to see this idea through the social web.

I’m kind of scratching the surface of some thoughts here so I’ll try and follow this up with more concise observations!

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18th December, 2008