At the end of February while checking in with the subcommittee I shared a trend on the Commons that had me a little anxious. With all of the amazing and robust growth we’d seen over the year there was a concurrent drop in the number of ‘friends’ each of our members had. On first pass this seemed like a pretty simple mechanism to explain: New folks come aboard, test out the blogs, join a couple of groups and then hang out to get the lay of the land. A process like finding ‘friends’ is more of a second or third tier operation for the Commons neophyte. To compound matters, as growth was trending up consistently over the previous months, the pool of new people going through this process became greater and greater. In turn this continued to push down the average number of ‘friends’ per user. After bringing this up with everyone it turned out we had a very complex and nuanced relationship with the idea of ‘friends.’ Questions were put to the floor and I’d say, in many ways, are still under consideration.
Does a platform like the Commons need a ‘friend’ feature? We work overtime to avoid spurious comparisons to Facebook and ‘friending’ someone (verbs 2.0) has always had the familiar ring of our old foe. I say that with a smile as I don’t think there’s anyone who is serious about the Web out there that doesn’t admire the architecture of a structure like Facebook. Clearly the people behind BuddyPress did and we’re grateful for it – it powers the Commons. Networking guild wars aside, the question lingers; what does it mean to ‘friend’ someone in a larger internet culture where that language is more or less secular. The Commons isn’t always a place to make friends, though that’s wonderful when it happens, but the Commons is about connecting with colleagues.
Was nomenclature the issue? In some ways, yes. The idea of finding and keeping ‘friends’ on the Commons was vestigial. As part of implementing BuddyPress we inherited that particular word for a social connection. Somehow ‘friends’ slipped past the door. Changing the language of the site from ‘friends’ to something less personal like ‘colleagues’ was thrown out as a suggestion. If I recall correctly we decided that in the end we liked being a friendly place here. All of that considered, there was still the real possibility that the language of the site may or may not have been related to the depressed ‘friends’ connections. There was something else to consider…
What are ‘Friends’ for?
I think I audibly gasped when someone suggested we nix the whole feature. The point being made was that if the Commons was a place for finding colleagues and working with them on various projects, that kind of functionality was handled pretty well through the groups and blogs. Since member profiles have plenty of opportunities to list contact info there was good reason to suggest that maybe having a ‘friends’ feature was superfluous. Why ‘friend’ someone when you can reach out to them through a group, read their blog, or just get their email address from their profile and drop them a note or (and I wince) find them on Facebook?
I was compelled. ‘Friending’ can be awkward. I know personally I often leave friend requests sitting in my inbox for weeks…Not on the Commons of course, but certainly on that other place we shall not name. We can be frank here too, there are also plenty of occasions where you don’t actually want to be affiliated with someone for any number of reasons. Ducking the request becomes an exercise in social aikido.
Two things saved ‘friends’ though. The first being self evident; it doesn’t do any harm one way or another. ‘Friends’ is already a part of the Commons structure and plenty of people use it to keep up with contacts across the Commons community unproblematically. Chances are you have some friends here already, it’s how you came to the site. Whether the falling numbers relate to the growth we’ve had or speak more to active disinterest on the community’s part is hard to discern. Removing the feature would only frustrate the community members who have invested in it and foreclose the possibility of new members using it in the future.
The second is something I’d like to bring to the community here to get engaged with as a project. My hunch is that people don’t take advantage of the ‘Friends’ feature on the Commons as often as they could because we don’t always do enough to develop that aspect of the site. That’s our job; to build this place, keep it running, and make sure you know everything it can do to help you enrich your community. One of the best parts about a community like CUNY and the Commons is that it has so much amazing diversity, talent and ambition that it can be a little easy to get overwhelmed. Discovery should be half the fun of being a part of this community. At the top of your screen there’s a tab called ‘My Commons’ and if you go to ‘Edit Profile’ you’ll see that you can list out all of your academic interests if you didn’t do so back when you were first setting up. That’s a part of the profile you might have skimmed past on your way to joining a group or getting your blog going. The great thing about going back and tending to that part of your profile is that it allows other community members to make connections with people who share those interests. More importantly, it allows you to make connections across CUNY that you never could have made otherwise.
Going forward I’d like to dedicate a little time in this space to highlight connections made on the Commons. I encourage you to go push the ‘search’ feature of our a site and see if you can track down some colleagues here that share your interests. The Commons is a tool for connecting, we built it that way with your input and support, but it’s also a great place to hang out and reach across this giant university. Stay in touch and let me know what you find.
Make a friend.