Following Friends and Strangers

One of the more intriguing aspects of Twitter is the way they chose to describe relationships among people on their messaging network. Rather than using the conventional term “friends,” they chose to call people “followers.”

That was a unique insight in modeling social networks that is starting to be adopted by other services as well, which in my opinion is a good thing. A conversation between Andrew Chen and Tim O’Reilly ocured on Twitter over just this issue:

Andrew Chen:

@timoreilly re:twitter, Networks are “friends only” or “strangers too” Friends only = less network effect. Twitter=friends+strangers though?

Tim O’Reilly:

@andrew_chen friends + strangers definitely the stronger model. web, twitter have this in spades.

Kevin Marks joins in on the conversation, noting:

its not so much friends vs strangers as not forcing reciprocity. “following” is a good way to express it

I agree with Marks’ sentiment. There are implications to how terms are used to describe social interactions online, and “following” is an apt term.

Terms that imply a bi-directional relationship, such as friend, family, or colleague, need to be confirmed by the individuals on both sides of the relation. However, one way relationships are equally useful, especially in “broadcast” scenarios that occur in public.

It is perfectly reasonable for two strangers to both follow and be followed by each other. Each arc remains one way, however, and the people remain strangers, despite the mutual interest in what each other is publishing.

I suspect some of the confusion stems from trying to compare Facebook with Twitter. That’s like comparing apples to oranges however, because Facebook is a private social network whereas Twitter is a public social network. That distinction is where the line is clearly drawn between friends and strangers.


Lonna Hanson
August 19, 2008 at 3:45 PM

As always, I found your writing very interesting.

August 29, 2008 at 12:33 PM

interesting point. i think going forward you’ll be able to configure your network modeled on what value you wish to derive from collaborative relationships.

a spectrum.

broad networks for diversity and deep networks for special interest and intimacy…,and of course everything in between…

just my $0.02

i read your bloggery from time to time. nice read


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