I am never more painfully reminded of the limits of symmetric “friend”-based social networks than I am when I post a book review on Goodreads. I love books, and I love spreading the word about ones I enjoy (as well as ones I expected to enjoy, but didn’t quite). Most of the time, my reviews go out quietly to a small group of friends, whose book recommendations I also follow. It’s a lovely social network.
But every once in a while, I post a link to one of my reviews on Twitter, and am immediately deluged with friend requests. Some of them are from people I know, but whose taste in books I may not share (or even care about), and many are from complete strangers. If I say “yes” to any of them, I have to see every book they review as well. As you can imagine, it doesn’t scale.
I don’t mind if anyone in the world reads my reviews, and they are in fact all public on the site, but for someone to “follow” my reviews (get notified when I write them), they have to be accepted as my friend, in which case I see all their reviews as well. Asymmetric follow should at least be an option on any social network. It’s the way the world really works. We never find ourselves in clearly delineated friend-circles, where everyone has or wants complete visibility with everyone else, or none at all.
If you’re even a minor-league celebrity like me, there are way more people who are interested in what you are doing or thinking that you can possibly keep up with. I can’t even keep up regularly with the 500+ people I do follow on Twitter; keeping up with the 400,000 who follow me would be impossible.
Asymmetric follow is why I use Twitter regularly and Facebook much less often. With Twitter’s model, I can find people I’m interested in, whether or not they know me, and learn about them and their lives and thoughts. Others can include me in their lists. You become “friends” with complete strangers over time, by communicating with them (responding with @messages for example), perhaps by mutual following. In fact, Twitter’s wonderful system of @ messages means that anyone can address me – and so I find myself having conversations with complete strangers as well. I actually follow my @ messages more faithfully than I do my planned Follow list.
On Facebook, I’m expected to approve every request, and alas, I turn down far more than I accept. Amazingly, few people who I don’t know even bother to explain who they are and why they want to be my friend. I sometimes do accept strangers who make a good case for why I’d be interested in them, but I always ignore those I don’t know who don’t bother to even say hello. Ditto for LinkedIn and Plaxo and all the other greedy networks that are clamoring for my time and attention while requiring me to take explicit steps to approve or deny each request.
(Meanwhile Dopplr has seemingly implemented a form of reverse friending, in which I am forced to see the trips of anyone who has requested the ability to see mine, a kind of Bizarro-world asymmetric follow that has rendered Dopplr completely useless to me.)
Asymmetric follow is also a good way to boost viral growth, as it encourages people to try the service without having to be an active user. We learned long ago from Usenet and mailing lists that there are always more lurkers than posters.
So, consider this a LazyWeb request to all social networks out there: even if you have your own ideas about how to organize social networks, have an option for users to turn on “Twitter-mode.” I think you’d be surprised how well it works.