Steve Rubel raises some excellent questions about what it means to be a friend in the world of social networks in the post The Web Changes How We Define Friendship on his Micro Persuasion blog.
He missed two really important aspects of the "friend phenomenon" though. First, being somebody's friend on a social network is not the equivalent to saying that they are your terrestrial friend. The verbification of the word "friend" is something you would expect William Safire to cover in his On Language column as an interesting linguistic evolution. To "friend" someone on MySpace or Facebook is not the same as being their friend. Second, the issue of how people brag about how many friends they have should not be taken as a meaningful indicator of a broader social phenomenon. To hypothesize that having 700 friends in a social network makes a statement about the demise of meaningful social relations in our society, seems like a gross oversimplification. Rather, I see it as a function of the fact that the social networks don't offer a good way to segment relationships a.k.a. friends.
I want to bucket my online "friends" into three groups. The first group is my family and very close real friends with whom I share intimate information, photos, videos, messages and more. The second group is my extended social and pseudo personal network where I am willing to share lots of the stuff I care about, but perhaps not the fact that I'm about to have a colonoscopy. (That's a hypothetical!). Finally, the third group is everyone else. Former co-workers, industry acquaintances, and others that I find it interesting to have an informal relationship with. I may network with them and want to receive their updates and share information, humor and perspectives.
The problem with "friending" is that every relationship is indiscriminately dealt with through a model that was not designed for the many facets of our online lives. If you are in high school (MySpace) or college (Facebook) or if you want to have professional relations (LinkedIn), or you are looking to date (Match) these are some of the many social applications that have been designed to serve the specific needs and interests of their niche constituents. Yet, many of the applications that worked well for one constituency are not scaling or keeping up as new people enter the world of online social networks with their own needs and requirements.
Finallly, if you did not catch the NYT article omg my mom joined facebook describing a young woman's angst as her mom tries to friend her on Facebook, its a must read. Captures a really funny and poignant POV on the question of what it means to be "friends" online.