Is Making Friends Social Engineering?

Posted on March 23, 2009. Filed under: Facebook, Social Media, twitter | Tags: , , , |

Dr. Frankenstein and His Monster

Two sessions at SXSWi that I attended have had me thinking for a few days now. They were seemingly unconnected, one by Brian Brushwood of Scam School and one run by David Armano & Russ Unger on the topic of Friendship is Dead.

The Right Words

It occurs to me that the language that we are using to using to describe friends & friendship has been overtaken by the way in which people employ activities that used to be described by them. The one that, for me, exemplifies this is “making friends”. As children we were encouraged to “make friends” with other children, as adults we are impressed with the ease that some “make friends”.

Whilst the concept is popular, and has a clearly understood meaning, I wonder if it has not been overtaken by the technology now employed by so many to “make friends”. Social Networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Myspace etc. have made Making Friends, easier even for those who were previously lacking in real life social skills. The ability to be physically removed from a situation allows everyone to be more social.

However, are these friendships “made”, are they in fact manufactured rather than grown? I would argue that real friendships are the result of an organic process, not a manufacturing process. The technology that has brought people closer together has also enabled people to employ ever increasing amounts of social engineering to “make friends”. Social Engineering, Transactional Analysis and other behavioral theories cover the same basic principles and when online behavior is compared with these theories there are some obvious correlations.


There are six generally accepted methods to influence a person’s behavior, liking, reciprocity, authority, scarcity, commitment & social proof. If you map just three of these to behaviors on Twitter for example, and look at what Twitter users see as “good behavior” recommending someone by mentioning them in something like the #followfriday posts or by Retweeting their posts, these actions can be seen to be both acts of liking and acts of reciprocity. When you examine the Twitter ranking tools they all place a high value on these types of activity. These acts of “friendship”.

To become influential on a social network requires not a friendly nature but simply an understanding of social engineering. Guy Kawasaki, in an article in Entrepreneur, talked about how to increase your Twitter followers, one method he recommended was to @reply to A listers (or SMores as he refers to them), not because they would respond but because others would see you in a conversation with them and make the assumption you had a relationship, this is the use of Authority.

There is more to it than Numbers

Of course its easy to read this post as simply me being cynical, and actually I am far from it. My own experience of using Social Networking has been very positive. Facebook allowed me to find old friends and extend relationships with new ones. However, not everyone online is using Social Media with the same intent. Numbers have become increasingly more important, especially as Marketers see the potential in Social Media. Businesses run on numbers, so measuring Influence on the basis of numbers becomes an easy way to identify people worth connecting with. The number of readers a blogger has, the number of followers a Twitter user has.

I argue that these are manufactured, that they are transient, and relate more to popularity in the celebrity sense than they do with Influence. That is not to say that influential Social Media users don’t have large numbers of followers, but there is not necessarily a direct correlation. That is where it becomes really difficult to measure influence.

Friends or Influence

So are we seeking to make lots of friends or are we seeking to increase our sphere of influence? Is the aim to be seen as a friend to all, or to be seen as influential? Is there room for both? Can we “make friends” to increase our sphere of influence and still be geniune?

Image by Dunechaser via Flickr
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4 Responses to “Is Making Friends Social Engineering?”

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I think that at the end of the day, all human “friending” activity is based on things like affinity (this person shares my values, or is from my home country, or likes what I like), attraction (whether physical, emotional, etc), and some other mix of risk/reward/gain.

In high school, some made friends with the outcasts because that was a way to cope with being an outcast. Others made friends with the popular and cool kids in order to be seen as cool — tragically, a lot of those people just came off as posers.

I like your use of “social engineering” BTW, as it relates to using non-technical means to exploit (or gain access to) an information system. In some cases, that’s what is going on, and in others, there are genuine connections.

I have a feeling that the next generation of tools like Twitter and Facebook will allow us to create groups/circles of trust–family and close friends in one, colleagues in another, old friends from high school we haven’t seen in 15 years in another. TweetDeck already gives us some of this, but it’s crucial in our attempts to maintain all these connections.

This is a interesting question you raise. I will try to answer it from 2 different angles that both add to your view. One there is an empirical social network analysis that shows that Twitter is not a social network at all. Two our ability to make friends is not learned behaviour by excellence. In the nurture/nature debate, at least 50% should be attributed to nature. Recent (last 10 years) neurological research points to ‘mirror neurons’ being essential in creating empathy for others. You can read e.g. the article about it in the scholarpedia. A fiew years ago I have reviewed the opposite phenomenon of friendship: rejection. Also rejection is a process whose mechanisms are printed in our neurological circuits. See my paper Does rejection hurt?

The only reason Social Engineering doesn’t work for me is because of how “we” used it back in the 80s and 90s during a lot of the hack/phrack/2600-ish times. It meant something a lot different then, but I see where you’re coming from.

It was great to have you in our Salon, you were a great participant and a great sport!

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