Language fails to help with social network “friendship”

A deceptively simple looking question

Working on LinkedIn today, I came across a comment by Wade Meyer, host, performer and public speaker, that posited a question that I am sure will be getting more controversial as time goes on: “Should a judge be required to remove any lawyers or other legal professionals from his or her Facebook friends list?” He follows with this quote:

“Since signing up for Facebook, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas has accumulated 280 friends. He estimates that maybe a dozen or so of those people are lawyers and only a handful regularly appear before him in court. Folks in the latter group, be warned: The judge may soon unfriend you. He doesn’t really want to, but the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opined last month that such friendships on social networking sites give the impression that a lawyer is in a position to influence a judge.”

Initially, I was prepared to overlook the question as more social network navel gazing, but then I thought about it. Who should determine who our social networks connect to and should we be required to curb our networks because of other obligations or relationships? Being the iconoclast that I am, I immediately rebelled against the idea of anyone telling me who I could be friends with but once I did that, it became a bone that I gnawed on and realized it was not as easy a question to answer as I first thought. Then I decided to tunnel into the question and determine what was really being asked here. And the conclusion was that this was not just about the question but the nature of the relationship that needed to be addressed. Alas, our tools simply do not allow us to parse our friendships deeply enough to work with our technology.

My much more complicated (than I initially thought) answer

Our language fails to address an issue our technology has created. A judge being on Facebook or other social network should NOT be forced to remove himself from the community that the social network provides him or her. “To friend” someone on Facebook does not require, obligate, or even necessitate communication between the two parties directly.

The word “associate” or “contact” might be a better description of the interaction between two parties on a social network. What the network allows is for different levels of information to move between two parties depending on the parties levels of interaction. Such services might want to allow the user to differentiate better between their friends to make such conflicts easier to detect. It could look like this:

Contact” – information sharing is usually one way, from the sender to the receiver. Facebook’s page services are a way to mitigate having to become friends to get information of this nature. This info is usually information regarding events or gatherings. You may be a contact because of a previous affiliation (work, school, convention) and may still desire to get information from that contact. Any conflicts should be easily determined. Organizations that sell things through social networks would commonly be considered “contacts”. This is the least committed of relationships, shouting to the world at large.

Associate” – This is a person whom you may actually share information in a two-way stream. This person may have little to do with your work, but the two of you may share a hobby, condition, or non-professional relationship that may be separated by distance or physical availability. This is the true nature of most contact on Facebook, people connected by their interests but may have never physically come in contact with each other. This is the social equivalent of a convention, people gathered around a like topic.

Friend” – this is someone you know in the physical world, not just a virtual friend. This person will know you, may have a relationship with you, but is now, someone you do not see very often, and social networks allow you to share info about your friends and family – pictures, sound and video files. This is the category of friends that a significant number of people find again many years after leaving school or the military. This is a small tight group of people with a shared history and personal knowledge of each other. Conflicts could become an issue here.

Buddy” – this is a person you see somewhat regularly, but are always sharing communications, connections, resources with using social networks. You likely work together, or have recently and still stay connected because of your ability to augment each other’s opportunities. You may be in business together, or work on important projects together. This is as close a relationship as you can get, maximizing a social network to your personal benefit. You don’t see anything wrong with this connection and are likely to maintain it as long as possible. This is likely to be the level of interaction where conflict is certain to occur but these are also people who would know this about you and you about them, so you would not allow them to put you in conflict because of the potential long-term losses.

Now these levels of differentiation do not exist currently, but if parameters like these could be established, then everyonecould decide just who or what type of connections should be established in relationship to their work. Judges are people and need to have connections to the society they sit in judgement of. This is why so many of our laws and ideas go awry, because the lawmakers are out of touch. Social networks are not going to go away, and such conflicted improprieties occurred long before social networks did. Social networks now allow us to track them BEFORE they potentially become a disaster.”

With the advent of so much technology, I suspect the answer will arrive in the future, with our technology being able to tell us before we actually know, what or who might be a conflict and why since we are putting so much of our information, our virtual selves online, there may come a time where we might find ourselves unable to friend someone at no more than the basic level because of our computer’s telling us that our interaction would not be in our best interest. To quote the infamous and less than cooperative, Hal 9000, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

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