My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Why do you articulate your relationships?

[From OM]

When Friendster, et. al. were the hottest thing on the block, hordes of people jumped online to articulate their social network for everyone to see. Analysts thought that they were buying in to the “goals” of the services – dating, job seeking, classified, etc. There’s no doubt that many people gained value from these services but is this why everyone was so keen on articulation?

Articulation is not new. Building an address book is a form of articulating relationships. The address book is considered to be a tool of memory, yet what assumptions are being made when an entry is created? I would guess that anyone who scribbles a new name in assumes that they will have some reason to contact that person again. There is an assumption of a future connection aided by the knowledge of a current or past connection. Address books are an articulation of our connections to others with pointers for locational reference. The primary purpose of an address book is to look up an individual. It is our own personal people dns.

In the technology sphere, there are plenty of tools that incorporate articulated relationships into their application. Consider LiveJournal or AIM. In both applications, one articulates the people one wants to keep in touch with and uses each application to connect with others voices either through static or synchronous text. Both are tools for presence and communication – the articulation is key to engaging with these people.

What then are the motivations behind articulating relationships in publicly articulated social networking tools? Certainly, many participated simply because it was the cool thing to do. For some, PASNTs offer a nouveau address book where people can have access to a collection of one’s relationships for future use. For others, it is a mechanism to keep in touch with others’ evolving representations of self. Yet, the public aspect of this articulation takes on an additional role, that of signaling connection (a topic that Judith Donath and i took up in Public Displays of Connection).

Because the public signaling is so deeply rooted in PASNTs, this is off-putting for some people. Not everyone wants to engage in this practice which can be seen as pretentious at best. This is not necessarily an empowering feature for everyone, particularly those who keep their relationships dear to their heart and see no value in public signaling.

While all social people maintain relationships, there is nothing consistent about how people maintain them, yet these tools require some consistency. Who does this limit and how?

For some, private articulation for a particular purpose (memory, reference to a connection, presence) can feel quite comfortable and thus the people engaged in tools that permit this may not feel nearly as comfortable in ones that require public performance of relationships.

I would be very curious to know what motivates others to articulate their relationships and in what situations. If you think about your blogrolling habits, your be-Friending on PASNTs, your address books, your IM buddies, why do you choose to put people there? What purpose does this serve in your life?

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7 comments to Why do you articulate your relationships?

  • joe

    let me see: With my blogroll I maintain it because I want people to be able to see (most of) who I’m reading. It also allows me to associate myself with them in a hypertext/pagerank sense. If I’ve ever learned anything from someone, I put them up there. I also like to link to a few non-blogs and a couple people with significantly different political opinions. It’s sort of like a mental laundry list with the caviat that I don’t always get to read everything.

  • tony

    is it any different than hanging x-mas lights,or halloween decorations? we want to signal to others-our beliefs,thoughts,needs. The good old:”I’m here,really I breathe,feel and care.”

    I put folks on my lists-because I like them, they seem like good friends or just plain interesting folks.Others because they’re family or co-workers.

  • Hi! Thanks for your Ani Difranco lyrics page! She is an amazing artist, and I respect and enjoy her work.

    I mainly use AIM and my Weblog to maintain relationships w/ folks from my RL. However, I have ” met” a couple of good folks online and even dated a man whom I met through an online dating service. (But I don’t reccommend this: as it is much more risky than meeting someone in RL)

  • Danah,
    I will ask for a favor- I know that’s weird. I am doing research on Enterprise Resource Planning Systems Implementations. I am doing my PhD at Syracuse University. I am looking for people to share my ERP blog… Share what we’ve read, where we’ve got stuck, etc. I love your blog and check it out frequently. (I even have you on my links- just to make it easy for me to get to yours actually 🙂 I figured there might be others who are reading your blog who might be doing research on ERP or Enterprise Systems. Would you maybe copy and paste my request to see if someone would be interested? There are blog fans. There are people interested in ERP. I want to reach people who’re interested in ERP but are also dedicated bloggers.
    Thanks in advance and if you don’t feel comfortable about helping me, that’s also fine.
    Yeliz.

    http://enterprisesystems.blogspot.com/
    http://yelix.blogspot.com/

  • Anonymous

    There are problems though. I know you’ve thought about these, but I just have to add my latest uncomfortable moments to the list. Anonymously 😉

    On Flickr, I just noticed my ex has signed up. So has his best friend, a man with whom I’ve kept up a precarious “sure we’re still friends” thing with purely through monthly AIM chats in the two years since the breakup with my ex. In these chats I carefully don’t say anything about my love life and don’t ask anything about my ex because I just don’t want that connection. Anyway, the ex’s best friend made me his Flickr contact. He’d marked me as a “friend” – so I felt obligated to make him a friend back. Until I started looking at his photos – he hadn’t posted many, and NONE of his photos were friends only. I, on the other hand, post far more friends only than public photos, and they include lots of personal stuff, my family, my friends, my boyfriend. The thought of my ex’s best friend getting access to that was horrendous. Yet how RUDE to tell him that he wasn’t my friend when he said I was his. I ended up de-friending him in Flickr, but hated the explicitness of this. In AIM I can leave him on my buddy list and keep the monthly chats short and still kind of be friends.

    A month or so earlier, I’d invited my boyfriend to join Flickr. I marked him as “friends & family” since I wanted him to be able to see all my photos. He joined and marked me only as “friends” which made me kind of sad, a bit, and then worried that I’d been too pushy in marking him as “family”. I de-familied him, and then two months later, he marked me as family, started a friends-only photoset with photos of my with a sweet description and (!) started adding photos of me to his family set of photos. I was stunned, and really touched, obviously made him “friends and family” again and then started thinking about how to integrate him more in my more personal photosets which I’d developed entirely so that I could keep him OUT of my family sets because I thought that would make him anxious.

    Yes, it’s kind of silly, but these are things that become so explicit it’s hard to deal with sometimes…

    The third story hasn’t happened yet, thank god. I have an amicable relationship with my child’s father, thank goodness (uh, this is a previous ex), but we hardly ever share photos of her. Someone asked me whether I had him tagged as “family” on Flickr and I almost screamed. What a HORRIBLE idea. I hope to god that he never, ever joins Flickr. How on EARTH would I deal with a situation like that?

    Apart from that, you know, my boyfriend (he’s wonderful) used Flickr to explicitly put me and my daughter in his family and – well, that’s just what you’re asking about, and I found it really touching. Kind of like telling his friends and everyone really that hey, this girl’s really important. 🙂

  • Anony

    I have once–and only once–“friended” someone that I do not personally know and personally like. I did this as a (admittedly, not very useful) gesture because this person is a friend of many friends and someone I have met only once and was not favorably impressed by. In an attempt to deflect the assumption that I “hate” this person, I added him to a friends list, but it has had no effect.

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