Once people have used Twitter for a while they often ask: How can a very large number of people be your friends?
The truth is they can’t all be your intimate friends but that there are degrees of friendship just as exist in real life. And on Twitter the term “friends” is often applied to mutual followers, i.e. people who follow you and whom you follow back.
Strangely enough Twitter is like real life in a number of ways! In our everyday lives we have many contacts that, while friendly, are not close friends. Twitter is like this too. There are degrees of contact from close friends with whom there is regular contact through to sporadic contact that is similar to running into an acquaintance in the street and stopping for a chat.
Some people like to allude to Dunbar’s number of 150 people when discussing online friendships. But I prefer to allude to daily life. Most of us are acquainted with large number of people on a fairly casual basis – to say hi in passing or to chat when buying our morning coffee. Then there’s the slightly closer acquaintances with whom we work or participate in recreation. Then even closer are our intimate family and friends. Thus we organise our friendships into concentric circles of increasing or decreasing intimacy.
As with any social interactions there is also an interplay between the personal and work relationships. A big question we need to consider now is: How and when do we draw the boundaries between these spheres? Once we went home and took off our suit and everything that happened from then until next morning when we donned the suit again was personal. But online social networks like Twitter blur this old boundary in ways we have not yet assimilated into our cultural practices.
The big difference between Twitter and other forms of offline social interaction is that (a) it is public; and (b) a permanent record remains available. This means that conversations of the kind that were once held casually and ephemerally (perhaps over a beer or a coffee) are now available for later scrutiny and potential use or misuse.
Twitter is not the only technology that raises these issues – Facebook and other social networks give rise to similar challenges. One thing is certain, if we don’t find ways to accommodate this new way of life there are going to be some messy situations that could potentially harm both individuals and organisations. I don’t have the answers but I do recognise the importance of this question. If you have any ideas for how to manage this feel free to add a comment.