One night while binge-watching the first season of Glee, after the third anachronistic reference to terpsichorean teens adding each other on the then-dominant social network MySpace, it hit me: The friend request is dead.
If not dead, then it’s at least moribund as a way of expressing our online ties to other humans.
The online act of friending is being replaced by the simpler notion of “following.” Instead of the emotionally fraught two-way dance of requesting and accepting a relationship, you simply announce an interest in someone else. They can follow you back, or not.
Foursquare Joins Team Followback
On Wednesday morning, Foursquare became the latest Internet service to stop asking you to be friends with everyone.
In the course of relaunching its app with a new logo and a new emphasis on tips about local restaurants and shops, Foursquare has also eliminated the notion of “friends.” You now follow people you’re interested in to see the tips they leave, but there’s no requirement that they follow you back.
That’s because, as Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley noted to ReadWrite, Foursquare has removed the check-in feature which broadcasts your locations to a designated set of friends, moving it to a separate app called Swarm. Since you’re no longer sharing private information like your whereabouts, the friend model of social interactions no longer makes sense for Foursquare.
LinkedIn, as ReadWrite recently observed, has quietly added a “Follow” button to millions of users’ profiles. That, too, is a reflection of the service’s changing priorities. While you can still connect to your contacts, LinkedIn also wants you to be able to keep tabs on users who are publishing business-oriented essays and articles on the site. While the Follow button is hard to find right now, expect it to become more prominent on LinkedIn over time.
That’s similar to a change Facebook made in 2011, when it introduced a “Subscribe” button, which let you track public updates from a person without becoming their friend. As ReadWrite founder Richard MacManus noted at the time, this was an attempt to encourage more public activity on Facebook. (In 2012, Facebook adopted the more common “Follow” language for this button.)
Everyone Follows Twitter
The reason why Facebook, which has spread the idea of mutual friending to more than a billion people, wanted to hedge its social bets with the option for a one-way interaction, was simple: Twitter envy.
Twitter didn’t invent the idea of subscribing to a feed of updates, but it certainly popularized the notion. By making “Follow” the way we interacted with another account, Twitter let us track friends, celebrities, strangers, dogs, bots, and other oddities.
While less intimate than a friend request, the act of following ultimately proved more revealing. While Facebook’s friends list might show who we know, our Twitter follow list unveiled who we are.
That’s why Facebook mimicked Twitter’s model—though its friend features were far too established to change. And it’s part of the reason why it bought Instagram, which launched with a Twitter-like follow model.
That’s why LinkedIn, too, is trying to supplement your list of connections with a new list of people you follow. And it’s why Foursquare has dumped friends altogether, in a radical act of social reinvention.
I’ll Be There For You
There’s still a place for friends in social apps. Messaging tools like Snapchat are an obvious place where you need a two-way connection. But those apps increasingly rely on our phones’ address books rather than a carefully constructed list of friends.
Anonymous apps like Secret also change the notion of “friends.” Instead of asking you to reveal yourself through a friend request, Secret asks you if it can scan your address book and Facebook friends list. You’ll then see those people’s posts, though not their names. It’s a different model of friendship—one that does away with the friend request.
Expect more services which followed Facebook’s lead in requiring a two-way dance of friending to drop it in favor of Twitter’s simpler follow model, especially ones that deal with nonsensitive information.
Yelp is a prime candidate. My Yelp inbox has a message from a friend I’ve known since middle school: “Your reviews are really great, I’d love to keep in touch on Yelp.” That boilerplate is nonsense: We don’t need to “keep in touch on Yelp,” and my friend shouldn’t have to beg to see my reviews.
Pinterest has an interesting twist on the follow concept. Instead of following people, you follow their image boards. (You can opt to follow all boards by an individual, but in Pinterest’s interface, there’s no way to follow them as a person.)
It’s especially intriguing to think about how the follow model might play out in online retail. Etsy, the online store favored by crafters, has adopted the follow model, letting you track activity by another shopper or a merchant. Square lets you follow “lists” on its Square Market e-commerce site—a model closer to Pinterest’s.
Amazon.com, one of the very first Internet giants to add social features—remember when you’d enter in your friends’ birthdays to get reminders?—has mostly botched this opportunity.
For a while, Amazon let you follow reviewers, but then eliminated that feature in 2011. You can view top reviewers’ profiles, but there’s no way to keep track of them. Oddly, its Kindle store does allow you to follow other readers who post public notes about books, but this isn’t well-integrated into the rest of the site.
What you’re not likely to see, as Amazon and others experiment with adding social features to their sites, is the return of the friend request. Those apps that require a two-way connection will rely on established stores of connections by tapping into our Facebook friends or our phones’ address books. Those that don’t will go for the follow model, which has clearly won out. We all follow the leader.