When friends and contacts are neither.

I noticed something weird in how I use Flickr today and wondered if maybe there is a disconnect between social software systems and utility in web applications. I know flickr has continually moved away from the social software label, but their application still has firm roots in such a system.

I started using flickr back when it was a flash-enhanced backchannel chat at etech many moons ago, and when it was finally released to the world, it was built off the previous web trend of social software [1]. You used to have 5 or 6 different levels of contacts with various rights attributed to your images, but thankfully they simplified the process into basically "contacts" and "friends/family" (friends and family can be separate, but they're basically equal).

So the odd thing is that I've been adding really good photographers as "friends" even though I've never met them. Real-life friends I've shared many beers with have been demoted to "contacts". Half my contacts list contains people I've never had any contact with whatsoever aside from looking at a photo of theirs on flickr.

When I first joined flickr, I did the natural thing and connected to everyone I knew online as contacts with people I met and hung out with in real life as friends. But flickr isn't just a social software app and is a great utility, and the one page I hit on flickr.com many times a day is the "Photos from your contacts" page. What I quickly found is that while I love seeing my friends take photos of the beach, and their family, and meals they eat, eventually the feed was getting clogged with one friend's fascination with a subject, or another friend's attempt to upload thousands of photos at once.

I realized mapping my personal relationships of "contact" (acquaintances) and "friend" clashed with the actual utility of Flickr. With almost 300 contacts, I've taken to keeping my favorite photographers as friends, and viewing photos from "friends and family only" and switching that back to "photos from all contacts" occasionally when I have nothing to do and time to kill.  A bunch of pro photobloggers I've never even emailed are on my friends list, while people I have attended many parties with and enjoy talking to are demoted to contacts. At this point, the word "contact" lacks meaning and I can't think of a new term they should swap it out with.

This presents weird social problems. I worry when I set a stranger as the elevated "friend" level and they get the email from flickr describing it -- it feels like a social faux pas that I've overstepped my bounds [2]. Similarly, I don't have the heart to completely delist anyone from the lowest contact level, especially those I've talked with at many parties, on the off chance they notice.

Maybe it's my early adopter status and adding so many friends as contacts early on when the application was just getting going, but I've noticed the leftover social software components don't really mesh with how I use the app anymore. Flickr is a really useful, fun way to share photos with friends -- it is software and it is social in nature, but the old conventions of social software don't really apply.

I'm curious what comes next -- what terms should we use to describe social and utilitarian connections in the latest web applications?

[1]. It's weird how the best example of web 2.0 technology was born during the 2003 social software boom that has since passed. Is the next king of web development trends going to spring from all this web 2.0 hullabuloo by learning from current mistakes and conventions and outlive this era?

[2]. For the ancient-in-web-years reading this, you probably remember a time when Carl Steadman added you as a life partner on sixdegrees.com