Social networks and rejection

I wanted to follow up on my recent post with more thoughts about social networks. I was thinking about the networks I’m part of, and how they interact, and realized that a component that is often missing from social software is the requirement for rejection. Nobody ever turns down a friend request in Orkut. But it’s more than that. In real life, you can’t just join a group by saying “I’m part of this group.” It doesn’t work that way, and we all know it. The group has to accept you, and start to include you, and think of you as a member of the group. Otherwise, you become that person that we have all met, the one yapping “Hey, guys, what are we doing?” as everybody else plots ways to ditch you. Sometimes it happens more subtly (folks “forget” to call you when they get together), sometimes it happens more explicitly (fraternities flushing pledges), but it’s part of life as a social animal.

And despite a societal move towards equality for everybody, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that social groups are inherently discriminatory. We don’t let everybody in. We choose who we want to associate with. If we didn’t, then there would be no value to our groups. We feel that there is a certain character that is associated with our group, and those that don’t fit in don’t belong. I’m not advocating racism or sexism or any other phobia here, but a recognition of the idea that we are all different and that we all have the desire to associate with those similar to us. Taken to extremes, it can be a bad thing, sure – cliques in high school can be painful, and discrimination can be taken to the point of the Ku Klux Klan. But a group that knows its own character and looks for similar folks, but not to the point of automatically rejecting all others? That seems to be a reasonable compromise.

This idea isn’t as well formed as I thought it was when I started. I started thinking along these lines last weekend, when we had a reunion of many of my college friends. It was amazing to me that I was more comfortable talking to people who I’ve seen once or twice in the past ten years than I am talking to my coworkers who I see for hours each day. What does that say? It’s also interesting that the vast majority of these friends were from my college fraternity, many of whom I never actually lived with – they had lived at TEP before I arrived, or after I graduated. I think this is probably an extension of the friends of friends idea. People that we like and are similar to tend to like similar people. So people that were chosen to live at TEP after me by people who were chosen by me tend to be people I like. But it’s only weakly transitive – now that it’s been almost three (four year) generations from when I lived there, our values have diverged.

To return to the point I started from, though, one of the reasons I think that TEP has a strong contingent of people that I feel close to is precisely because there is a formalized acceptance process for joining that group called Rush. The current brethren have to make a decision as to who to accept and who not to. And that process reinforces a certain character of the group, the qualities that they value, however elusive those qualities may be to define.

I’ll have to come back to this at some point. I think that there’s some value to be had here, in associating value of social networks with exclusivity, but I can’t quite articulate it right now. Alas. I think it’s related to some of the ideas being expressed in this post about friendship over at Many-to-Many. I’ll keep on thinking about it…