Friends don’t buy friends: paying for a better Facebook status update ruins the game

For a moment, don your cynic’s armor and think of relationships as a game. Like any game, it has rules. Here’s one of them: you don’t pay people to be your friend. If you do, that person is not your friend.


Before we gaze deep into the dark navel of interstellar definitions of the meaning of friendship, let’s recap why I wrote this post in the first place: Facebook is letting some users in New Zealand pay to make their status updates more prominent.

I get the business temptation, especially with an I.P.O. on the way. Maybe this is an elaborate play put on to ease investors’ worries about how the social network will continue to grow and churn out profits. This, potentially, could do both. Some folks previously disinterested in Facebook might see a new way to reach people and hop on. Current users might expand their networks in ways to accommodate this manner of paid communication. (Or maybe they’ll contract them to make the networks more efficient.) And if people are buying updates, they’ll want them to be better. Facebook could become a middle-man to writers and editors willing to refine all of those messages.

Yep, but it will no longer be Facebook.

Letting people buy attention on a certain type of network of their own construction ruins those networks.

Friendship is about true connections. It’s about giving, not selling. It’s about listening because you want to, not because you’re paid to.

Paying to be noticed on a true friend network changes the network from a social one to a commercial one. Treat your friends like customers, and they stop being friends. The same cynic who donned armor in the first paragraph may say that everything is for sale, and no harm will be done. Not so. A social system where the intangible cords of human connections are bought and sold is a society on its way down.

But if a network was formed with this intention in mind, and described as such, then what we have is just a new ad spot that Facebook can sell. A request would go something like this “Joe Blow wants you to join a network he uses to try to drum up freelance work.” Then Joe Blow could feed all kinds of updates into this network that would presumably be filled with people interested in Joe Blow’s freelance work.

Now, about the word “friend.” Just what is a “friend” on Facebook?

That word itself lacks the nuance and flexibility to capture a whole new suite of relationships that arise online. There’s the “I met you once and need your contact info” friend. The “I knew you 20 years ago and it’s fun to see what you’re doing” friend. The “you work somewhere I want to” friend. The “I don’t know you but adding one more person to my network can’t hurt” friend. The “you think the Internet is Facebook so I have to connect with you here to connect with you at all” friend. The “I love to keep track of what cool things you’re up to” friend. The “you’re my best friend so I’ll connect with you wherever” friend.

Maybe Facebook should just call them “connections” and leave the rest of the categorizing up to us (it already offers some tools to do this). In some ways, this is just semantics. What really matters is how you organize these friends/connections into subnetworks, how you communicate with those little universes, and the tools Facebook offers to allow us to specify to whom we communicate with individual messages and how.

Reading about this advertising experiment made me think Facebook was, in conflict with the underlying rules of certain types of human connections, giving people the tools and clearance to treat personal relationships like business ones. Ads are palatable because we know they’re ads. Status updates, personal or not, that are paid to stick around and be noticed, are ads. The end result of buying attention in this context is not just corrupted communication, but a world where one’s access to money determines one’s relationships.

To do so reminds me of a phenomenon on World of Warcraft, a real-time online fantasy game with millions of users. Some people buy high-level characters rather than earn them. Such players are disliked: they don’t know how to play right, bringing the rest of the team down, and they mock the investment of time and energy other players put into the game.

Purchasing a spot that should be earned asks the question: Why be true to the game when you can just buy your way to the top? Or, in this particular Facebook context: Why be sincere when sincerity can be sold?

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