Friday, May 14, 2010

Uncanny Friending

There is an urban legend that Eskimos have many different words for snow. The truth is the Aleut languages have about as many words for snow as does English, but allow descriptive suffixes to be attached to any word to form countless variations.

Consider the English words we use to describe human relationships, and the distinctions they convey in meaning:

sisterstepsisterhalf sister
significant otherfiancéespouse
friendjust friendsfriend with benefits

We use adjectives to add huge amounts of information in a single word. "fiancée" conveys one meaning, that of a beloved person. "current fiancée" conveys an entirely different meaning, a disposable relationship given a label for convenience.

Now consider the words we use to describe relationships in social networks:


Why do we find this unsatisfying? I believe it is a corollary to the Uncanny Valley effect in robotics and computer games: "friend" is close enough to the real description of the human relationship that we find it unsettling. If the term were more inhuman, less shaded with meaning, it would not be so maddening.

The term "like" has a similar problem: who wants to like something unpleasant or unsavory? Clicking "like" is meant is to express interest, but the terminology is close enough to the real intention to be maddeningly imprecise.

I also suspect this vaguely unsettling feeling will resolve itself in a few more years online: the words friend and like will simply lose all meaning. We'll know this has been achieved when people stop using air quotes to distinguish online friending versus real life friends.

This genesis of this musing came via an insightful tweet by Marshall Kirkpatrick:

told my wife that google "results from your social circle" showed me because we are friends. she insists we are more than that. true :) less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Marshall Kirkpatrick