I’m in the middle of a very interesting book by Paul Adams, called Grouped. It’s about how friends and networks work in an online environment.
Adams cites research by Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl (that I’m going to investigate; sounds fascinating) that identifies eight types of relationships, which can be characterized as “weak ties” or “strong ties.”
So what are these 8 types, and how do they relate to friend requests online?
These are people we don’t know well and our acquaintances.
1. Associates: Don’t know each other well, share a common activity (like a hobby)
2. Useful contacts: Share information and advice (often related to work)
3. Fun friends: Join for fun, don’t provide emotional support
4. Favor friends: Help each other out in a functional, not emotional way
5. Helpmates: Combine characteristics of fun + favor friends
These are the people we care about most — our inner circle. Most people have fewer than 10 strong ties, and many, fewer than five.
6. Comforters: Helpmates with deeper emotional support
7. Confidants: Share personal information, enjoy each other, can’t always offer practical help
8. Soulmates: All of the above, the people we’re closest to
We have the deepest, most intimate connection with our strong ties, of course, but it turns out that weak ties are very important sources of information and contacts; because they’re further away from us, they have access to information that we might not already have. If you’re looking for a job, for instance, a weak tie might provide you with fresh contacts, while your strong ties know the same people and opportunities that you already know.
I found it helpful to see these eight categories. We use the word “friend” to cover so many kinds of relationships, but friendships come in different flavors.
Facebook is a place where I sometimes feel awkward about this: I would like to connect in a casual and friendly way with someone, but feel weird calling this relationship “friends.” But I guess it would feel more awkward to say, “Want to be associates? Or”Want to be useful contacts?”
I often hear people argue, “I’d rather have a few true friends than a bunch of superficial friends.” This seems like a false choice to me; I can have many different types of friends, and they all add richness to my life, even if we never make it into the strong-ties categories. On the other hand, it’s clear that some people prefer to have very intense friendships with a few people, and aren’t much interested in getting very close to a larger group, while some people have a bigger range of intensity in their relationships.
Do these categories ring true to you? Can you identify what kinds of “friends” you have? I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately.
My friend Aidan Donnelly Rowley just re-launched her blog Ivy League Insecurities — “writing books and raising girls in the wildness of NYC.” Lots of great stuff there.