Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.
-Illusions, by Richard Bach
It was remarked recently that friendship is the new capital. The implication is that people with few connections on social networking sites have less value than those that have lots of connections. I just read personal branding in a recession, and saw that the same sentiment was put forward there, as well. On the web, social equity is viewable through ... the amount of engagement you have on social networks. Quantity, not quality.
I strongly disagree with this idea.
First, I want to be very clear about my use of the word "friend". To me, a friend is someone to whom I will unconditionally give money. A friend is someone I'll go out on a line for. Someone I'll pick up in the middle of the night if they need a ride, no questions asked. It is someone in whom I can confide. I've long held a clear distinction between "friend" and "acquaintance," and the number of people I call friend is small. I'm careful not to refer to people as "friend" unless they truly are. If they're not a friend by my definition of the word, I'll call them a "buddy" or "a guy I hang out with" or some similar lexical indication of a casual relationship.
Following someone on Twitter does not make them my friend. To make the claim that someone with more followers is somehow a more "valuable" person is outrageous in my mind. In part, this is because I see friendship as a two-way street. I don't think it's possible for me to consider someone a friend (by my definition of the word) if they aren't capable or willing to reciprocate that relationship. In online relationships and social networking sites, the power users with thousands of so-called "friends" aren't really establishing friendships because the relationship is largely one-way. The social network power users aggregate and redistribute information, but what do they give back to the people from whom they glean the information they rebroadcast? Maybe a link? Maybe a "shout out"? That's not a very rewarding relationship, is it?
I think the fundamental issue here is the way in which folks use social networking sites. Some folks seek to use them for professional purposes, while others seek to use them for purely personal purposes. It's easy for people "doing business" on social networking sites to underestimate the importance of the social aspect of many of these sites and services, and to miss the point entirely on how they can be used to strengthen the bonds of real friendships. When using social networks for professional pursuits, quantity is important. Following a lot of people from which you can obtain information improves your chances of getting information worth sharing. But it can be a full-time job to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the people you follow aren't really "friends" are they?
I know that my stark separation of "friends" and "acquaintances" is not standard for most folks, and that's okay with me. It would be interesting, though, to see social networking sites offer some relationship indicator other than simply "friend". But I suppose terms like "leech" and "peon" aren't likely to get much use in a social networking site, are they?