The Google+ Dilemma: How Do You Separate Online "Friends" from "Acquaintances"?

Surprisingly, it's not such an easy question to answer. We asked some experts.

If you've checked out Google+ yet, and one recent estimate says 18 million of us have, you may have asked yourself the same question I did when confronted with the challenge of dividing people I know into categories ("circles" in Google+ parlance) called "friends" and "acquaintances": Is Choire Sicha my friend?

Surprisingly, it's not such an easy question to answer.

I've written for Sicha's website, The Awl, numerous times, and he wrote for GOOD just this week. He and I have exchanged countless emails over the past couple years to share sad or strange articles, or to work on edits for pieces, and I once drunkenly G-chatted him after quitting a job (luckily, he responded only after I'd already left to go dancing). I follow Sicha's Twitter and Tumblr, so I know he has a great affinity for cats. He follows me on Twitter and Tumblr, too, so it's likely he knows who my favorite rapper is. I know what kind of cigarettes he likes, and I have a basic idea of when his pet cat, Cat, died. He knows I once donated a kidney to my dad.

I know more about Choire Sicha than I know about some of my coworkers, people I see and interact with on a daily basis. And yet I've never shaken hands or shared a meal with him. I don't know how tall he is. I've never even seen him from across a room. Welcome to the age of the internet, when you can talk to somebody for years without ever knowing what their voice sounds like.

Way back in 2003, MySpace billed itself as "a place for friends." The year after that, Facebook debuted and again applied the term "friend" to everyone—your boss, your mom, your boyfriend, the girl you sat next to in calculus—despite the fact that some of them were your family and you couldn't stand at least a few of them. It made no sense. But now there's Google+, the first real competition for Facebook since MySpace flatlined, and the first reminder of why we had it so easy with Facebook: Deciding who's a friend and who's an acquaintance in the internet age is tough.

"I've found it pretty much impossible," says Nancy Baym, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age. "I have two circles named 'Nearest and Dearest' and 'Everyone.' That’s the best I can do, but even who goes in Nearest and Dearest is a little ambiguous." Baym says assigning titles to relationships has always been difficult, but adds that the uncertainty contributes to relationship fluidity, and thus usefulness. Online social networking is forcing us to confront the strangeness that's always been there, and the results can be sticky. "In everyday practice, relationships tend to be fairly ambiguous," she says. "When our computer systems force us to categorize these people, it forces us to butt up against that ambiguity, and it isn’t easy. It's easier to never have to categorize."

Researchers say it's not surprising that hundreds of millions of people are comfortable with calling relative strangers "friend" on Facebook. In May a study showed that the average social-site user has twice the amount of friends online than they do in the real world (how "friends" was defined is unclear), with 55 offline friends and 121 online friends. Users also reported being more open and honest with their online associates, probably because the internet is particularly suited to easy social interactions. "The formation of close interpersonal relationships requires the establishment of trust, that is, a sense that intimate information disclosed in interpersonal exchanges is not widely disseminated and is not used to ridicule friends," writes Gustavo Mesch in the International Journal of Internet Science (PDF) in 2006. "The relative anonymity of the internet reduces the risks of such disclosure ... because such intimate information can be shared with no fear for embarrassment resulting from disclosing [it] to members of the close-knit, often transitive, face-to-face social circle."

Increasingly, of course, online anonymity is a relic. Facebook demands users use their real names (though many don't), and Google+ has followed suit. Many Twitter users use their real names in order to promote their work and projects, and still other people have taken to Foursquare to let the world know where they eat and shop. Our grandparents may have been frightened by the idea of letting strangers know our names, what we look like, and at what bars we like to drink. Now, for many people, it's just another Saturday night.

With the lines blurring, it makes sense to try and align our online and offline worlds. And according to Coye Cheshire, an assistant professor at Berkeley's School of Information, Google+ is making real headway on that front, at least more than Facebook.

"Just the concept from Facebook, where you mutually agree on a relationship and say, 'Yes, we are both friends with one another,' that is totally awkward! Nobody wants to do that," he says. "I really feel [the Google+ circles format] is something that begins to approximate interaction as it takes place in the offline world. If I want to just follow people, I can do that, and they don’t need to acknowledge that I’m a friend." He adds, "In Google+ we can have our cake and eat it, too."

If you've clicked around Google+ and noticed that you've liked it more than its competitors, perhaps that's the reason—like Facebook, it allows you to see what people are up to, complete with pictures and videos. But unlike Facebook, you're not required to reject or ignore friend requests, nor do you have to pretend that your sister, your ex, and a person whose blog you like are all your "friend."

Does that model increase the ambiguity of online relationships, changing the definition of "friend"? Not necessarily—as Baym says, the ambiguity has always been there, the internet just forces us to negotiate it. Instead, Google+ and the rest of the web are changing the definition of "stranger." In the past, a stranger was someone you'd never seen or spoken to. That's murkier now, which may not be such a bad thing. "Google+ kind of reduces the barrier," says Chesire. "You don’t have to approach the person you've kind of wanted to know because you can follow them on Google+ or Twitter, no harm done there. And that’s a sort of cool innovation."

Image via Google+ Tutorials.

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