One of my biggest gripes about most online social networks that I participate in (Facebook, LIVE, etc) is the absence of functionality that takes into account how “strong” or “open” my friendship is with any given person. Fixing this is a major opportunity — if not a long-term, competitive imperative — for social networks in general, and the video game ecosystems that aspire to be legitimate social networks in specific.
We do not treat all our friends and acquaintances equally in real life, so why should social networks force us to treat our online connections in equal fashion? People need tools that enable them to selectively modify how any given user in their network can view their profile, interact with them, etc. This process of selective modification can be sped up with user-defined “friend types” that can be applied, in a stroke, to many users in a network.
For example, were such a system to be implemented for LIVE or Facebook, I would personally choose to break all my connections into three categories:
- Friend Type 1: People who are my very close friends and family — I am always happy for them to know when I’m online, and always happy to receive direct messages or status updates from them. Communications from people in this category should be marked as special and/or sorted to the top of the list. Also, if I’m in the middle of a conversation or game with somebody, these are the only people who I want to be able to “interrupt” in any way.
- Friend Type 2: People who are friends, co-workers, business partners, neighbors, etc. These people account for the vast majority of my social network connections. I’m generally quite happy to connect with them, and I want to know what is happening in their lives, but I don’t need to see every single photo they’ve commented on and every ticket they’ve received in Parking Wars — it clogs my news feed and annoys me. I’d also like the system to intelligently manage (and by that, I mean condense) status updates and other communications from people in this category who, to put it politely, tend to over-communicate — much as I appreciate minute-by-minute updates on their dog’s diarrhea or baby’s rash, those things clog my news feed and inbox in an unacceptable manner, too.
- Friend Type 3: People who I’d rather not be connected to online, but whose invitation I cannot refuse or ignore for practical reasons. I don’t want these people to know that I am online, and I don’t want to see their broadcast updates. The very best thing a social network can do for me, in this situation, is creatively mask my presence yet still give these “friends” the impression that they are meaningfully connected to me.
For years now, most IM clients have offered rudimentary tools that enable you to segment your friends into the groups I’ve defined above (though they do a poor job of helping you to effortlessly create the “meaningful” connection I describe in Type 3.) Most video game ecosystems and social networks need to offer the same tools — if not something much better. Otherwise, the mere act of logging in will become increasingly painful for our most connected users — the people with the most “connection spam” to deal with, and the very people we most want to keep happy.