Orkut and the cheapening of friendship

What does it mean to be a friend? In LiveJournal, it has a very specific meaning; it means that you’re interested in reading someone’s journal, and that in general, you’re willing to let that person read your “friends-only” postings — at least, unless you start using friend groups to control who can see which posting. In Orkut, however, saying someone is a friend has little or no meaning, since in orkut you don’t really do anything other than define your social circle.

Worse yet, in Orkut-space, friendships are generally bilateral; when someone adds you as a friend, it adds clutter to your Orcut main page until you answer the question yes/no question, “Is person so-and-so your friend?”. Well, what kind of question is that? Orkut doesn’t allow you to specify whether the friendship level is one of “this is someone I would have as a groomsmen or bridesmaid at my wedding”, down to “this person heard me speak when I happened to be in town in Victoria, B.C; we may have said hello”. So do you say yes, or do you say no and risk offending some relative stranger because you’re saying that “sorry, I don’t consider you a friend”.

What most people seem to do is to simply say “yes”, on the theory that in Orkut-space, it’s relatively cheap. After all, it’s not like you’re giving them access to your TMI livejournal entries. In addition, the entire structure of the Orkut site is structured to encourage people to use a very loose, cheap definition of friendship. People with a large number of friends are featured prominently on other people’s network charts, where as people with few friends are on the fringes, or not listed at all. So a person who has a few, deep friendships are pushed to the margins, where as someone with hundreds of superficial friendships are pushed into the center. Wonderful.

The one useful thing that I’ve found from Orkut is that it’s been a useful source for various people’s cell phone numbers, as well as other vaguely personal details that I hadn’t known about them. My theory is that this is because most people fill out the profile before they understand what “friendship” means in Orkut, and so they general tend to be a bit more willing to let information be available to their “friends”. Then when they get seduced into listing everyone and their brother/sister as friends, they don’t go back to edit down their profile to match their actual level of Orkut promiscuity.

I’m still trying to figure out what I should do with my Orkut account at this point. Should I just give in, and say yes to everyone who claims me as a their friend? Should I be more discerning, and risk offending these people? Should I ask for my Orkut account to be removed? I’m not sure, but this quote from Marc Cramer’s blog is certainly where I’m leaning….

I already know who my friends are, am not actively trying to get laid, and don’t need the “service” of having to risk offending near-strangers who want me to confirm some notional “friendship” between us a dozen times a day and I certainly can’t think of a good reason to entrust some commercial outfit with my personal relationship data.