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Friends versus Followers: Twitter’s elegant design for grouping contacts

BFF means “best friends forever” for those of you who are wondering why there’s a monkey and banana at the top of this blog post

Examining the power of one-way friending AKA “follow”
When I first joined Twitter, I found the one-way following mechanic pretty weird – but now, it’s clear that it’s very powerful and provides a richness that you can’t get from two-way friend requests. Initially though, I was confused. After all, hadn’t all social networks standardized around two-way friend requests that both parties have to accept? Why try to fix it? It seemed like it’d just be confusing, and potentially freak some people out that they were being followed by random people they didn’t know.

This post examines the strengths of the one-way “follow” design, in particular, the ability for this paradigm to support 4-tiers of relationships rather than the simple 2-tiered model in the classic friends case.

First, let’s discuss the social groupings issue.

Social groupings and friend segmentation
At the same time as Twitter was just getting started, the rapid explosion of users on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks raised a bunch of really core and important questions about these social applications. Among these issues:

  • Will one social network rule them all?
  • Or alternatively, will you use one social network for work, one for your personal life, and possibly others for other vertical interests?
  • If it’ll be one, how will you group your work friends in one, and your personal friends in another?
  • How will this work at a design level? How about at a technical level? (aka Data Portability?)

These are all great questions, and point out a number of potentially fundamental weaknesses to the all-in-one social networking model. If you look at many other communication channels, like phone, email, etc., you’ll often see people segment their identities. Their work voicemail will be boring, and their personal voicemail will be funny, and they’ll use different phone numbers for each.

Of course, the initial petri dish that social networks grow – high school and college students – don’t really have to deal with this. Their social groupings are more or less homogenous, because they only have personal friends. But after you’ve worked a couple places, moved around, and have your friends’ careers diverge into lawyers and slackers, then your social network becomes more complex and segmented.

The approach that many social networks have taken to solve this is to group people into networks and friend lists. Either through self-assignment or you assigning them, people go into different lists. Of course this hurdle is basically a type of boring security configuration that consumers have historically had trouble with.

Twitter’s “follow” model
The amazing thing about Twitter’s model of allowing one-way following is that it adds depth and a couple simple segmentations to your friend list, without needing to do any configuration beyond hitting a button.

With the one-way follow design, you have:

  1. People who follow you, but you don’t follow back
  2. People who don’t follow you, but you follow them
  3. You both follow each other (Friends!)
  4. Neither of you follow each other

Having these 4-tiers of relationships on Twitter is nice – combined with Protected Updates, it creates a nuanced set of definitions, executed with just one button: Follow.

The advantages are numerous: First, it’s easier to get started by opting into a number of feeds that pre-exist, and you can populate your timeline without anyone accepting your friend requests. Second, it makes it possible to have interactions with lots of people (@replies), but your timeline only has information you care about, as you don’t have to follow folks you’re not interested in. Third, some profiles are inherently appealing to a cross-section of users – these include celebrities, companies, media content, etc. – and it the one-way follow design supports all of these nicely whereas two-way friending makes things complex. 

Two-way friending with public profiles?
Compare the above to the traditional two-way friending case, supported by social networks

  1. You’re friends
  2. You’re not friends

So how do you deal with Sean Combs aka P. Diddy (aka @iamdiddy)? If you were to friend him (and he friends you back), all of a sudden, you are exposed to the random people (like you) who are interacting with him, which creates a lot of low-value information on your newsfeed.

As a result, it only makes sense to separate Diddy’s profile into two separate ones, a public and private profile, where the private is the “real” friends and the public one is everyone else. For MySpace, they opted to differentiate these public profiles as “Artist Profiles” whereas Facebook decided to call them “Pages.” I imagine that they treat information flowing in and out of these pages specially, so that they know not to public crazy amounts of information from random people, and they can segment those interactions out.

Note that MySpace was very early in having these celebrity profiles, which has led to the right of so-called MySpace celebs like Tila Tequila, Forbidden, etc. whereas I’m not aware of any Facebook celebs emerging ;-)

Maybe this two-way friends with public/private profiles works, but it’s much less elegant than a single “follow” button. In the dual profile version, you end up needing either lots of configuration (what photos to publish, which friends belong in which), or you end up with two distinct pieces of content. This would mean multiple photos, multiple profile content, and two places to do everything. Not attractive, in my opinion.

Ultimately, both approaches have their advantages – the two-way friending model is better at supporting strictly real-life relationships. That ability has obviously led MySpace and Facebook to conquer a lot of real estate and build eyeballs. At the same time, this model requires them to design around the complexity introduced by celebrities, brands, and companies, which are all important folks to have in your ecosystem for long-term monetization as well as mass appeal.

As always, leave a comment with your thoughts! See any other friending models that have advantages?

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