Why Circle of Friends Works in Social Networking

An interesting way to think about social connections and design.

The most popular paradigm for social networking sites is the “circle of friends” paradigm. This is when you connect to people by adding them as a friend, and your connection means that they are prioritized differently than those who are not. There are other paradigms, too. Wikipedia mentions a couple others including “Old Boys Network” (classmates.com) and “Circle of Trust” (epinions).

Although organizing around friends seems like an obvious way to do things, it wasn’t obvious at first and in some cases is still not obvious. Though much of how we think about our own lives is in terms of friends, its still another step to build software that recognizes this and leverages it to make social interaction work. One of the first to do this was PlanetAll, sold to Amazon in 1998, and was the foundation of the Friends feature there. Up until then many networking sites had tried to connect people who didn’t already know each other…instead of leveraging people who were already friends. Duh, right? Well…hindsight is 20/20…

A great example of this difference is explained in this article about Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams. What I Learned from Friendster. He explains that what makes his new startup, Socializer, different from other event sites like evite is that you can connect to people in a circle-of-friends fashion. In other words, your event information is prioritized differently according to who your friends are. Their events will show up on your calendar and vice-versa.

In some cases (like the professional arena) a circle-of-friends paradigm isn’t going to work. At that point a contacts-based paradigm will be more appropriate. It’s not hard to see how we can map our real life to software, but it does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. We have to believe that the system is modeling how things really are, and so using appropriate relationship words helps designers achieve that.

In terms of social networking, however, everyone, at all points in their life, can describe themselves in terms of their friends and organizing information in that way makes perfect sense. That’s why circle-of-friends systems are so prevalent. It works because it is the primary way that we view our social lives. Another reason why they say you can get a good sense of someone by looking at their friends.

Published: April 12th, 2007