How do I know this person? Through the Web!

Like other social applications, Facebook wants to know how you’re connected to people. So it asks: “How do you know this person?” and presents these choices:

The choice I usually want — “Through the Web” — isn’t available. One friend coerced “Met randomly” by adding “The web as a conversation engine” — but that’s an unsatisfactory workaround. There was nothing random about how we met. Given our shared interests and our online expression of them, it was inevitable that we would come into contact.

“Through the Web” should be a first-class answer for “How do you know this person?”

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46 thoughts on “How do I know this person? Through the Web!

  1. That should be option #1 … the number of people I know through the web is significant and is probably true for many people

  2. You could choose “From an organization or team” and then type in “Web” or “Blogging” or whatever. I often put things like “BarCamp” or “Web414” for organization. Still, “Through the Web” makes great sense.

  3. That’s not what facebook is for. I mean come on, it has FACE in its name. It’s for people who you know face to face and hang out with. If most of your friends are online friends, don’t use facebook. It isn’t for you.

  4. Although your point is mostly related to ‘manufactured serendipity’, the cluelessness here actually goes deeper. There should be a checkbox labelled ‘though correspondence’ (or ‘through email or chat’). There are folks I only know (or knew) through IRC, IM, or email mailing lists (and prior to that, Usenet and FidoNet). Furthermore, this mode of relationship-making is hardly new, as relationships-by-correspondence (both personal and professional, both positive and antagonistic, and both private and public) are a time-honored tradition as old as letter-writing.

    Jon, I really wish I had been able to make it to FOO Camp next weekend. Since I can’t be there, please make a point of asking Teresa Nielsen Hayden about ‘Lost Fandoms‘.

    The patterns of community enabled (and popularized) by the Internet are anything but new (except in scale and ubiquity). History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme a lot.

  5. “There are folks I only know (or knew) through IRC, IM, or email mailing lists (and prior to that, Usenet and FidoNet).”

    Comment #5’s point is well taken, though. It can be argued that Facebook isn’t /for/ that purpose. Then again, as a network of networks, it can hardly avoid being used in those modes even if it didn’t start out that way.

  6. “I typically hit ‘continue without selecting’ since I feel it’s none of their business”. Well, while I agree that it isn’t of the Facebook developers business how I know a person, I know I appreciate when people have entered this information while browsing friend lists. It is sometimes very interesting to see how people are related and how they know each other. I find that the value of Facebook increases the more information you put into it. Just take a look at the “Social timeline” tab on your “Friend” page. That’s a very cool way to visualize the data on how your social network was built.

    I agree with Jon. There should be more options. I’ve met a lot of people through World of Warcraft and USENET, for example. Although we didn’t meet face-to-face, I’ve now met a lot of them in real life, drank real-life beer with them and eaten real-life food with them. I’d say we are real-life friends too. Why shouldn’t Facebook be able to document how I met these people properly?

  7. Because they do not like these kind of options as the data mining value (and therefor what can be sold to advertisers) is not as nice as with the other options?

  8. There’s 14 options, and I still don’t find how I can describe my relationship with most of my contacts, there should be an open option where you can enter your own description.
    It will be hard to index and retrieve in their sql query, but at least it will reflect how I met my contacts.

  9. In praise of conversation engines

    “Flaubert’s Parrot, c’est moi!”

    – Fran Lebowitz commenting on Julian Barnes’s 1984 novel Flaubert’s Parrot, referencing Gustave Flaubert commenting on his own 1857 novel, Madame Bovary, namely “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”

    The four of them (and I include Madame Bovary) knew all about conversation engines in their centuries long exchange and their hyperlinks were literature. Their quips, novels and criticism were their blog posts and permalinks. Their shared interests were demonstrably life itself and the ideas they contributed as they described and lived it.

    One notes that they didn’t have an explicit social network to aggregate them ala Facebook, nor indeed a Technorati or Google blog search to identify the trends of this long conversation.

    Everyone focuses on attention, relevance and the here and now, the live web. One hopes that some of the social software we are building will be able to take the long view and tease out these kinds of references and stamp them with hyperlinks.

    “Hypermedia, c’est moi”

  10. Agreed. Back in the day when Facebook was closed to college students only, however, those were the options you were able to select when confirming how you know a friend. Facebook has now evolved when it opened its doors to everyone and the “How do I know this person?” confirmation screen should also evolve.

    Otherwise, just settle upon “We met randomly” and add “through the web” in the text area.

  11. I noticed that Lorcan Dempsey ( noticed a confluence here. Among the items he points to is one from Dave Winer ( that I’d missed, which reproduces the same FB screenshot I posted here.

    Dave puts it nicely: “Relationship-defining should be part of Facebook’s open architecture.” Agreed. And yet…if you had add-on apps A, B, and C for various styles of relationship-defining, in addition to the native way of doing it, they’d all be in competition with one another and with the native way, and you’d still be stuck inside the walled garden.

    It would, however, be a great laboratory in which to prototype mechanisms that could eventually operate on the open Net. In a lot of ways, you could say the same for Facebook as a whole.

  12. “One hopes that some of the social software we are building will be able to take the long view and tease out these kinds of references and stamp them with hyperlinks.”

    Yes indeed, nicely put, Koranteng.

    Meanwhile, in this situation right here, we have a good example of the allure of the walled garden. You can be pretty certain I’ll read the comment you made. But I am less certain you’ll read my reply — though I’d be more certain if you’d answered on your own blog and I either a) commented there, or b) commented in a fresh item here with a link back to you.

    In Facebook’s controlled environment it’s easier to tidy up these loose ends. Maybe that experience will help focus attention on tidying them up more generally.

  13. Couldn’t agree more. I struggle continuously in compromise with this feature. Certainly new social media sites should take new social and relationship culture into account when developing an element like this. More and more, relationships are based on conversations and connections that occur and remain online without traditional constructs.

  14. A digression on your point about how we keep track of things and how we decide to communicate and engage in conversations…

    For the longest time I stopped commenting on blogs and on certain mailing lists precisely because I wasn’t able to easily track the ongoing conversation. Thus our first interactions might have been email or blog posts where I had control, rather than comments.

    That decision about how one responds is important. Whether it should be email (depends on whether you can figure out the person’s email address or if you have been a longtime correspondent), whether it should be instant messaging for immediate response if you’re in the person’s buddy list, whether you comment on the person’s blog (if you can stand the increasing gamut of challenge-response and moderation on certain blogs), whether to respond on you own blog where you control everything (formatting, length limits, ability to annotate). The same thing occurs when it comes to cell phones, whether to respond by phone, or text message. And presumably those experimenting with Wikipedia and newfangled facebook, myspace, Twitter, Tumblr and such are seeing their users having to make the same decisions.

    Each of these services are in effect portals onto our attention. Per Zawinski’s law, these services inevitably add messaging: email and now feeds and perhaps forums.

    Further digression: some say that SMS spread because the pricing model made it cheaper than voice in certain parts. I’d also argue that a significant part of the uptake of SMS was that you could recall old messages in an easily understood inbox and outbox paradigm. Most messages are ephemeral, silly or prosaic, but a small subset we like to return to for whatever reason (to laugh, to cry, to remember what was said).

    These days, I use co.comments to track the trails I leave on the web and subscribe to a feed of conversations that interest me. It is fairly comprehensive and robust enough that I don’t fear missing out on the ongoing conversation. Moreover, on most blogs systems each comment is url addressable so I could even tag my comments appropriately and resyndicate.

    Lots of blogs have those digg, delicious and facebook buttons. To my mind the most important button which is often missing is “Track comments”.

    If you’re not available in my email client or feed reader, you risk disappearing from my mental landscape and increasingly most folks I read or lists I track have those. Even further, I’ve only been using browser-based feed readers, which means that if there are firewall implications and google reader or bloglines can’t get access to your feed, you may fall out of my limited attention. Thus I’ll admit that I don’t keep track of many of the great discussions on all those blogs inside Big Blue and focus on those parts of the tribe that look outwards. Incidentally that is a business opportunity for the web-based feed readers or attention-mongers: Bloglines or Technorati Enterprise for example.

    Now that enlightened email list servers are putting urls in message headers, email clients can begin to add options to visualize the links. The feature I missed most in the move from the Mozilla suite to Firefox was the site navigation toolbar that used to be built in by default. Luckily with the spread of feeds, there is now the orange icon in the browser ui indicating related feeds. I do however want other indicators for other potential types of related links.

    To recap, I’ve now written two longer discursive comments on your blog that could perhaps each be blog responses. I didn’t email you although I have your address, and hopefully your comment submission system will allow comments of this length. I also didn’t take time to annotate my comment, to add tags, or images or indeed to add links (for example on Zawinski’s law on software expanding until it can handle email, or indeed the later update to handle feed reading, or any of these services I’ve discussed) because I’m seeking immediacy rather than what a more reflective note or article might entail. I also don’t know whether any annotation would have worked. But I am fairly confident that I’ll have a permalink to this comment even if it is truncated or modified by your content management system, and that I can track the conversation from co.comments in the comfort of my feed reader of choice.

    Which leads me to my parting comment. The thing that is prime for standardiztion and indeed my biggest complaint with blogging and these new social software platforms is that we often don’t know what format of content is allowed when we take comment. On this blog, I can’t tell whether it is plain text, markdown, subset of html, xml or some wiki or other markup that is allowed. I think you could modify your blog template with a simple statement… “comments should be in this formal… these tags are allowed”

    The first step in my campaign is to get Blogger to expand the limited subset of html it allows in comments for example to add blockquote, cite, strong, em. WordPress should also follow and I’m hoping that someone will write an RFC for the safe subset of html that these systems can accept and provide the libraries to validate such markup. And the UI indicator that should be wherever you can comment along with a link to the formatting guidelines.

    All this of course was a long-winded way of saying that when it comes to tracking conversations, the link is a beautiful thing.

  15. Jon, if #5 was valid, there would not be a ‘through Facebook’ option. And, your point wasn’t that most of your relationships are online, but that some of your relationships are mostly or entirely online (or at least started that way). My point was that even absent the ‘online’ aspect, relationships through correspondence (or any form of text) are worthy of recognition.

    Even restricting to an academic setting, rivalries and alliances through correspondence are as old as the Royal Society, so why would Facebook want to lose relevance and utility once it’s users graduated?

    And really, this is a checkbox, where multiple choices are simultaneously valid. It’s already a mixed bag that covers both ‘type of relationship’ and ‘how we met’. Expanding the list somewhat is entirely reasonable.

    Finally, I suspect that there are plenty of relationships within Facebook even in the original college student demographic that started online (through the web or via email correspondence), and a subset of those that continue to be online-only.

    It all adds up to pointing out that the current UI is particularly clueless.

  16. Now that Facebook has spread off campus, those categories do need work. But even ON campus, Facebook is still overly undergrad-centric lacks a simple “one of my students” or “one of my teachers” tags. I have both, so I use “we took a course together” for both. If people think “folksonomy” is an annoying term, wait until they see “faceonomy” for open-architecture relationship-defining!
    Maybe they need an open-source category titled “Let me count the ways…” (academic hat-tip to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

  17. @randomwalker (#5): That’s not what facebook is for. I mean come on, it has FACE in its name. It’s for people who you know face to face and hang out with. If most of your friends are online friends, don’t use facebook. It isn’t for you.

    Yeah, right. Tell that to all the people who I’ve only met online who keep sending me FaceBook ‘friend’ requests even though I never use Facebook for anything others than acknowledging these requests!!!

    Jon, you nailed it! 9 out of 10 times Facebook doesn’t give me an application option. It is very frustrated.

  18. It makes sense, but I think facebook likes to appear to be a “social tool” instead of a substitute for the real world.

    As in MySpace vs. MeatSpace

    So they’d like to keep away from the idea that it’s a glorified chat site by leaving out references to it. Well, that’s a theory anyway.

  19. Ya they should have through the web as a very high answer because all the web sites now myspace myyearbook and youtube are all great ways to meet ppl i met my first bf online and we still goin out it is amazing and not random so ya they really do need it as a choice

  20. The other thing that’s missing is “through a conference or event”. One of my most common uses of sns is to remember people I met through conferences, events and community groups that are less formal than “organization”.

  21. Pingback: track a person

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