A pair of recent articles - Scott Brown's Facebook Friendonomics and Mashable's 12 Great Tales of De-Friending - have raised some interesting questions on the longevity and sustainability of relationships established within social networks.
Brown speculates around the problematic notion of never losing touch with anyone in environments such as Facebook. Most notably losing the 'right to lose touch' and maintaining the convenience of a clever address book albeit the inanity of one that constantly talks back at you...
Over a half decade into the life of the social web, services still represent 'friending' autistically, preventing us from ascribing the subtlety and meaning of real relationships to their digital counterparts. The dynamic and changing semantics of a relationship are intrinsic to our existence and yet most services are content to flatten them all into a simple 'friend soup', diminishing them all and stripping each of its unique values.
Services should understand that certain people are more important to me that others, based on the history of a relationship - whether that's proximity, temporal distance, frequency of contact, family connections or shared work histories. Right now, users have to do that heavy-lifting themselves, but Brown's notion of a Fade Utility for digital relationships isn't so far fetched...
Stevenn Blyth's Social Fabric project began to explore how to represent the decay of a relationship over time and distance by visualising the relative 'healthiness' of your relationships. The emotional representation of a friend's avatar would subtley signal whether that relationship needed your care and attention.
Perhaps in the age of iPhones and the emergence of federated social networks its now possible to concieve of a user experience that not as rich as Social Fabric, but one that can understand your actual activity - email, phone calls, messages, events, travel plans - and make some guesses about whom in your social networks you're neglecting, which relationships need some attention and let others face into the background with less prominence.