i-a9ac614f2d6f899922af78a53f54b6bf-Facebook friends.jpg
friend n.
1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.
3. A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade.
4. A person counted toward a “friend” total on a social networking site.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friends, and the shifting definition of friends within online social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn. There was a time in the not-so-distant pre-web past when I considered a friend to be someone who had my back, someone I could go to for advice or help, someone I considered a trusted ally.

Now that definition has been expanded, and it’s hard to take the word seriously in the context of social networks, where someone like Tila Tequila can accumulate 1.5 million friends. Or someone who knows me through someone else or has just read my writing here considers me to be a friend. I want to be nice, I want to be accepting, so I click “yes” to those friend requests, while also blindly sending out dozens of friend requests from my email address book.

For the purposes of being a journalist covering online media, I’ve registered for many social networks mainly to see what goes on there, rarely adding too much personal info to my profiles. I’m much more of an observer than a joiner. For the past couple years, the only one I really was active in was LinkedIn, a more business-oriented network. But lately, Facebook seems to be the place of choice for work colleagues, and I spend chunks of each morning OK’ing friend requests and seeing which cool mini-application doodads I need to add to my profile.

For both LinkedIn and Facebook, I was driven to participate by friends — or maybe I should say “friends.” And the social networking sites are truly friend-driven and friend-powered. They don’t need to spend money on marketing, because they have the power of friends who cajole other friends to join in, who then tell 10 friends, who tell 10 friends, and so on. It’s a people-powered network effect, causing you to go where your friends are — or at least your work colleagues.

The Rise of Facebook

But why Facebook? It was formerly a closed network for high school and college students, but last September it was opened up to anyone. I thought back then that perhaps Facebook had jumped the shark by opening itself up and then adding a controversial “news feed” feature that let you peek in on a friend’s every online move. MediaShift readers mainly defended Facebook back then and have proved me wrong.

Instead, I think older folks — especially in this online media world — have taken to Facebook for a few reasons:

> They can feel hip and young by being on a social networking site set up specifically for people younger than them.

> They can experience social networking first-hand after reading about it and talking about it without the experience.

> They can put themselves into the shoes of the younger generation, of their kids.

> Facebook has a clean, simple layout, unlike the more cluttered MySpace.

> Facebook opened itself up to any third-party developer, making itself a more thriving platform.

I’m not totally convinced that these little mini-apps and widgets are what makes the Facebook experience compelling, as most of them have fleeting entertainment value (e.g. “biting” others and turning them into zombies). I give it a lot more credit for its simplicity, and focus on photos, music and movies.

comScore recently found that the Facebook resurgence isn’t only among my “friends.” The site’s traffic went up 89% year-over-year in May to 26.6 million unique visitors, and the demographics have changed dramatically. The age group of 12-17 was up 149% in that same period, 25-34 was up 181% and 35+ was up 98%.

And yet, I still wonder what all that means financially for Facebook and the other social networking powerhouses. Yes, they have the eyeballs and the traffic, but how do they make money off of that? When I go to Facebook, I am socializing or communicating or observing human behavior, not looking for a deal on an old couch or looking to click on ads — no matter how relevant they might be. These new-fangled social networks don’t seem to be that far removed from the old personal home pages or earlier networks such as LiveJournal or Friendster that came before them. Wringing money out of these high-traffic, low e-commerce networks still is a challenge because we’re in a different mindset when we search social networks than when we search on Google for a product or service.

There’s also the nagging problem I have with all the time I’ve spent on LinkedIn and Facebook lately: What’s in it for me? I feel like most of my time is spent dealing with friend requests, or job referrals, or questions coming from other folks. I’m happy to help them out, but I never use the networks for my own needs. Is that my own failing, my own habit of doing those things in other ways, or a failing of the social networks themselves in not equaling out the karma we put in and get back?

What do you think? If you are spending more time on social networking sites now, especially Facebook, explain why that is. If you are put off by social networks, tell us why. Do you give and get from social networks, or is there an inequality there? What positives and negatives do you see in social networks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: There have been some great additions to this discussion topic. First up, NYU professor and NewAssignment.net founder Jay Rosen writes a long note on his Facebook profile about Facebook — and only readable by his “friends” on Facebook. But he said it was OK to quote him on my blog so here’s some of what he said in the eloquent note:

When I look at my list of friends on Facebook they are a kind of social network; I guess some would say a professional network — ‘contacts,’ mixed with a bunch of personal pals who are also from that network. But that’s not my idea for how Facebook can work for me. I see the 144 Facebook friends I have now as friends of my ideas, and possible participants in my various intellectual projects (schemes) by which I mean people who can help me improve them, in some cases develop them, perhaps at times spread them, and of course drop them when they are wrong turns.

At the same time, their ideas and projects are things I have a stake in, and so under the principle of mutuality I will interact with you on Faceblook as a friend of your ideas, as I am doing now by taking up a question Mark Glaser posed at his site, MediaShift, where I have also guest posted.

That was my starter notion when I started with Facebook. Then I look at the tool itself, the platform, and rather than ask what it is, or what it has, I am trying to figure out whether Facebook itself, properly used, can be a friend to my ideas.

One of those ideas is to create a Facebook group or connection for people interested in doing crowdsourcing work on one story idea:

Use it to collect a closed network of friends for an investigation a single reporter is running. Network together ‘friends of the story…” for purposes of discussion and information exchange. Or introduce friends of a debate to the debate — and to each other, and to new friends the debate has. Something like that might work.

It could be an interesting way to boost the ideas germinating at NewAssignment.net, an experiment in open source journalism. With the addition of profiles and social networking at a site such as USAToday.com, perhaps more people will make the link between news stories and reader participation, feedback and citizen journalism.

Another important point I forgot to take up in this post is the fact that surfing through my Facebook “friends” brought me to some pretty personal photos of people I knew only in a more formal business sense. That mixing of business and personal can spell trouble for people who don’t want those worlds colliding. Tish Grier mentions that in an excellent comment here:

From what I heard, many in the tech world are banking on Facebook replacing LinkedIn for business networking — and that’s the #1 reason many are migrating to Facebook…But Facebook for job networking is problematic — mostly because the amount of personal information on a Facebook profile — which, for the most part, is none of an employer’s business.