Permutations of Relationships on Social Networks

There is me, and there is you. There is also that guy over there. The one looking at us. He's watching us and listening to our conversation. I have friends. You have friends. He's on the phone. Maybe he's talking to his friends, telling them all about us. Here are some pictures I took. Let me see pictures of your baby. Why is that guy looking at my pictures? Aren't you creeped out that he's checking out pictures of your baby? Maybe you shouldn't show them to me here. It's not very private. Why don't we take this discussion online.

[Original image: Nikos Providakis]

There is Facebook, and there is Twitter. Now, there is also Google+. LinkedIn is hanging around somewhere, and he just hit the lottery, so he's buying drinks. There is Foursquare, wandering around outside. There is Reddit. She's kind of a know-it-all. MySpace is standing in the corner, jamming on a guitar, but nobody is listening. I think Friendster has moved to Asia, but I can't be more specific. Haven't seen him in a long time.

At the heart of all of these social networks is the way they construct relationships. Simple relationships, between me and you. Open relationships, between us and that guy over there. Complicated relationships, between me and you and the people you might talk to about us. Public relationships, between all of us, and everyone we talk to, and everyone who passes by.

It used to be so simple. I talk to you. If I want you to keep a secret, I'll tell you. Of course, I can't expect you won't tell anybody at all. There are things you cannot keep from your spouse, or your mother. There are secrets you shouldn't keep. But mostly, we have an understanding about what is personal, what is private, and what you can share. You know what I want you to share, what I hope that you share. I know what you told my friends about me, but I'm not going to tell you I know. If that's how you feel, I'll let you come right out and say it.

For all our criticisms about privacy, Facebook still constructs relationships in a relatively private way. Hi, it's me. Do I know you? Yes, we were friends in Mrs. Johnson's second grade class. I was your best friend in college. Look at all the people we both know. Tell me about your day. Hold on, let me make sure I really know you. Okay, now I'm sure. I'm eating a sandwich. Can you recommend a good dog park where I can take my toddler and our schnauzer?

Here are some pictures of me. I had a lot of fun that night. Don't tell anyone. Wait, how did my parents see those? Why is my boss looking at me like that? I forgot to tell you not to share them. I thought it was assumed, but apparently I have to be more clear than that. Well, no more pictures for you then. And I'm not going to tell you about my sandwich, or ask about good dog parks for Herr E. Fluffmeister.

Here are some pictures of me on vacation. I took that picture of myself, myself. Sure, you can show it to whomever you like. Go ahead, I don't care, but don't tell the whole world about it. Only the people we know, or maybe the people they know. But not everybody.

I have always thought Twitter is like having a loud conversation around a water cooler in the middle of Times Square. I'm going to talk to you, but anybody passing by can listen. I'm going to the airport. I'm stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. I'm being groped by the TSA. Now I'm on my plane. Darn it, my flight's delayed and I'm just sitting here. Here's a pretty picture I took of the wing, through dirty glass. I hate you American Airlines. I love you American Airlines. Can you believe I'm still talking to you while I'm up in the air? No, I'm on the ground again. Wheels down. Yes, they put the wheels on the plane down. No, I did not control the wheels, but I thought you would like to know that my airplane is functioning properly, and we have landed. Now I won a prize for being at the airport. I want you to know about my prize. I come here often. I'm like the President of the airport. They should call me Governor.

I wonder what those people are talking about. Let me listen in on their conversation. This doesn't make sense, let me back up and see what they were saying a few minutes ago. That guy is very interesting. I wonder whose conversation he listens to? Let me find out. I'm going to listen in on every conversation he has ever heard. Why is he friends with so many adult film stars? Why is he listening to everything Alyssa Milano says?

I know I'm talking about him, but I'm talking to you. He can't hear me. He's all the way over there. I'm talking to you. You can tell, I'm facing you, and I addressed you by name. I don't care if they hear me, we're all friends here, and nobody is friends with that guy, so he won't hear what I'm saying. I suppose he could ask. He could listen to all my conversations. Here's a picture of sunset that I took with my phone. Here's a picture of the burger I'm about to eat. I know it looks disgusting, the lighting in this restaurant is horrible.

On Facebook, you not only choose who you follow, but you also choose who follows you. The relationship is always mutual. You can extend it, but only in ways that radiate outward from that original relationship. I can trust you with pictures of my wife in a bathing suit because I know you will only show them to all your friends, and any friend of yours is a friend of mine. Sorry to butt into your conversation and argue with your liberal friends, but I figured it was okay, because they know you, and I know you. We all know each other now.

On Twitter, you choose who you follow, but have no control over who follows you. Hey, I want to tell you something. Hey. HEY! I'm over here! Why aren't you listening to me? Oh, now I see you are also listening to twenty thousand other people at the same . . . what? Who are you? Why are you interrupting me? Do I know you? I see that you are listening to a lot of people I know, but none of them are paying any attention to you. I will pay attention, but only if more people are listening to you than you are listening to. That's how I know you're popular, and I might want to be your friend. Or your follower.

Google+ complicates things even further. It took a long time to build an instinct for Twitter and Facebook. It took a while to know who was listening, and to whom I was speaking. I thought you sent me a private text message, so why can everybody hear my answer? I thought I was hiding all of my photos, so why does that guy still know where I went to college?

On Google+, you tell me that you would like to listen, if I want to talk. I might not listen to you, but if you want to hear what I'm saying, I'll consider it. If I'm talking to everybody, you can hear me. But I'm not going to listen to you. What about that article you just read? Sorry, I wasn't listening. I was talking to my old college friends, and my former girlfriends who still talk to me. Nothing. Nothing you need to hear.

If I want to talk to you, I will grab you by the ears and say it to your face. But don't tell anyone. Okay, you can tell people, but I don't want to hear what they have to say about it. You can tell whomever you like, but I don't want them to judge me. Okay, they will judge me anyway, but tell them to keep their opinions to themselves. No, don't tell them that. Don't tell anybody that. I don't want you to tell anyone what I just said. This is between you and me and the people I worked with at Ziff Davis and my friends who live in McKinney but not Dallas and my family members who are under the age of 40. Don't tell anyone else. I don't want this getting around.

It used to be so simple. I talk to you because I know you. I know who you are, and I know who you know. Sure, I might go to a birthday party for a friend at work and be surprised to see you there. I did not know you know her. But that's okay. I know you won't tell her what I said about that thing that happened in the office. We have a relationship. I understand you. When I talk to you, I know what I'm getting myself into.