Friendship and the API
We commonly think of an API as merely a set of performative rules that determine how two systems communicate with each other. An API is also, however, an implicit carrier of a set of semantic rules that dictate how a client application (or, to be more specific, how the programmer of the client application) is to understand these utilitarian instructions.
A well designed API, consequently, must not only provide all the tools necessary to accomplish certain tasks on the server but must also do so in a way that is easily understood by the client, either by reusing common software metaphors or, more often, by using analogies from the business domain or culture in general to get across the purpose of the API.
In the case of a social networking API, these semantic metaphors must naturally come from common modes of social relationships. Not surprisingly, this can be a complicated task when the social networking API actually creates new forms of social interaction that are fundamentally unlike the forms we are familiar with. This is both the promise and, to some extent, the danger of social networking.
In forging new manners for people to interact with one another social networking technologies also modify and distort the old ways in which people used to interact. When an office worker prefers to email the person sitting in the cubicle adjacent to hers rather than walk over for a conversation, the nature of the workplace – not necessarily for the worse – has admittedly been changed.
A case of API semantics meaning something other than what they ought to mean can be found in the Twitter API. In order to form a social relationship with another user, Twitter provides a REST method called friendships/create.
One would assume that, upon calling this method, the current user becomes the friend of the user that is befriended and that a mutual relationship has been created between the two. This is not the case. In the Twitter API, friendship is an asymmetrical relationship merely indicating that the person one befriends is a friend to oneself – that is someone that is followed – while one may not necessarily a friend of the person one is following – that is, they have not reciprocated by following back.
This asymmetric relationship is more clear when one considers two additional methods provided by the Twitter API: statuses/friends and statuses/followers. Calling the statuses/friends method returns a list of people whom one is following. By calling the statuses/followers method one retrieves a list of people who are one’s followers.
Rather than a network of friends, the world of Twitter is made up of these two classes of relationships: friends and followers. Even on the Twitter website itself, one is not provided a means to view all of one’s relationships. Instead there is one link, “following”, for viewing one’s friends and another, “followers”, for viewing the people who consider you a friend (even if you don’t feel the same way about them).
This is not the standard usage of friendship. It falls short of Aristotle’s notion that friendship is a reciprocal relationship between two people.
“Now the friendships that have been discussed consist in an equality, since the same things come from both people and they wish for the same things for one another…” Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Joe Sachs
It falls even further from the mark when one considers Michel de Montaigne reflections on his friendship with Étienne de La Boétie:
“Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union. We sought each other before we met because of the reports we heard of each other, which had more effect on our affection than such reports would reasonably have; I think it was by some ordinance from heaven. We embraced each other by out names. And at our first meeting, which by chance came at a great feast and gathering in the city, we found ourselves so taken with each other, so well acquainted, so bound together, that from that time on nothing was so close to us as each other.”
. . .
“[W]hat we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other. In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” Of Friendship, tr. Donald Frame
Practices Ancient and Modern
The two parties in a friendship are traditionally a friend and a friend, not a friend and a follower. And yet the friend/follower dyad isn’t a completely new social relationship, as one might expect from a mode of communication based on novel technology. Instead it resembles a social structure endemic to ancient Greece in which the participants were called erastes and eromenos, as often as not translated as ‘lover’ and ‘beloved’. You can find an interesting treatment of the institution, heavily influenced by Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in this Wikipedia entry.
Like the institution of friendships on Twitter, the ancient practice went by the common name for something it was not. Aristotle expresses concern over this kind of “friendship”, which sometimes went under the code “lovers of friendship”, as he tries to place it within his already overextended catalog of the types of relationships that are possible between two people, which already include friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of virtue (true friendship):
“With these [incomplete friends] also, the friendships are most enduring whenever they get the same thing – pleasure for instance – from each other, and moreover, get it from the same source, as witty people do, in contrast to the erotic lover and the boy he loves.
“For the erotic lover and his beloved do not take pleasure in the same things; the lover takes pleasure in seeing his beloved, but the beloved takes pleasure in being courted by his lover. When the beloved’s bloom is fading, sometimes the friendship fades too; for the lover no longer finds pleasure in seeing his beloved, and the beloved is no longer courted by the lover.” Nichomachean Ethics, tr. Terrence Irwin
The asymmetry inherent in the “special” friendship between an erastes and his eromenos is due to the fact that they seek different things from each other, and consequently cannot simply be called “friend” and “friend”. The erastes seeks pleasure from the eromenos whom he follows, while the eromenos allows the relationship to persist because he sees utility in it – he can get something — whether it be praise or practical gain — out of the relationship. The most extreme case of this may have occurred in ancient Sparta (somewhat glossed over in 300) where, because children were taken away from their families at an early age to become soldiers, thus dissolving the familial bond, hereditary titles and political advancement were based on the adoption of youths by their more mature elders into these follower/friend relationships.
The asymmetry in these relationships were also a source for amusement in ancient Athens. Plato writes about it in the Phaedrus, which is at the same time a dialog on seduction as well as a dialog on the nature of the soul. The humor inherent in Alcibiades’ party crashing in the Symposium and claiming that Socrates is his beloved likewise makes little sense without knowledge of the social context in which it takes place.
“For what is this love of friendship? Why does no one love an ugly youth, or a handsome old man?” Cicero
This ancient institution was also the backdrop for the accusation by Mark Antony — reported by Suetonius — that Julius Caesar’s adoption of Octavian, his heir, was based on such a follower/friend relation.
Hell Hath No Fury Like A Lover Scorned
According to Aristotle, the greatest source of instability in erotic friendship occurs when one of the parties misunderstands the nature of the relationship.
“The friendship that seems to arise most from contraries is friendship for utility, of poor to rich, for instance, or ignorant to knowledgeable; for we aim at whatever we find we lack, and give something else in return. Here we might also include the erotic lover and his beloved, and the beautiful and the ugly. That is why an erotic lover also sometimes appears ridiculous, when he expects to be loved in the same way as he loves; that would presumably be a proper expectation if he were lovable in the same way, but it is ridiculous when he is not.”
Navigating these relations and understanding how we stand to one another is one of the peculiar games people play on Twitter. Each user profile provides two numbers that indicate how their role in the Twitter economy: “following” and “followers.” Today Oprah Winfrey’s Twitter account says she has 1,125,560 followers, but only 14 friends. She can be considered an extreme object of desire on Twitter – a megalos eromenos. Other accounts will sometimes show a great disparity in the other direction, with many more friends than followers. These people might be considered excessive lovers.
A third group, exemplifying Aristotle’s notion of moderation, maintain balance between their “following” and “followers” numbers. These might be thought of as the good citizens of the Twitter economy, since they seek neither to achieve status with the number of their followers, nor infamy through the number of people they are following. Yet even this third group encounters its own problems. When the good citizens of Twitter reach out to follow someone, they generally expect to have the favor returned. If this does not occur, this can cause a certain amount of resentment against the beloved, in part because what was considered an overture of friendship has now been turned into an erotic and asymmetric relationship.
There is also some gaming involved in achieving high “followers” numbers – the number that is the de facto currency on Twitter. One way to do it is to begin following everyone one can. If they follow back, then this becomes a solid relationship of sorts. If they do not, then the follower can later drop the offer of friendship, thus bringing his two numbers back into some sort of balance.
This in turn leads other Twitter account holders to be wary of new offers of friendship. When it is from someone one does not know, the initial temptation is to simply say yes – and we all have early twitter relationships of this sort with people we do not particularly have any interest in. Over time, however, we become wiser but less friendly which, in turn, leads to the problem of non-reciprocation resentment on Twitter.
Certain tools offer a way around this. Rather than feel obliged to read the tweets of all 2000 or so “friends”, some account holders use software like TweetDeck to filter out their friends – in effect forming a circle of close acquaintances within their network of friends. This isn’t foolproof, however, since if someone following you sends you a quick tweet, they generally expect a reply. If you don’t reply, this may likewise eventually lead to non-reciprocation resentment – especially if the follower suspects you are filtering them.
The fault is in part due to the technology itself. A technology that encourages asymmetric friendships will ultimately be based on relations of pleasure and utility rather than on Aristotle’s ideal of friendships based on the admiration of virtues. This in itself is not a bad thing, but it lacks one of the central aspects of true friendship:
“In this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed, do not even deserve to be taken into account . . . For just as the friendship I feel for myself receives no increase from the help I give myself in time of need, whatever the Stoics say, and as I feel no gratitude to myself for the service I do myself; so the union of such friends, being truly perfect, makes them lose the sense of such duties, and hate and banish from between them these words of separation and distinction: benefit, obligation, gratitude, request, thanks, and the like.” Montaigne
At the same time, these Twitter relationships based on 140 characters at a time may form the basis for true friendships. The people we follow and are followed by on Twitter may eventually be encountered in real life – at a conference; on vacation – and something more lasting may be formed, much as Montaigne and La Boétie’s friendship began as an acquaintance by reputation. Even the relationship between the lover and the beloved in that peculiar institution of the ancient Greeks, according to Aristotle, has the potential to bloom into something closer to true friendship, after the initial courtship, if it is based on fondness rather than utility.
“Many, however, remain friends if they have similar characters and come to be fond of each other’s characters from being accustomed to them. Those who exchange utility rather than pleasure in their erotic relations are friends to a lesser extent and less enduring friends.” NE, tr. Terrence Irwin