Designing for Friendship
Over 2 years ago, at the height of COVID lockdowns, I attended my first “metaverse conference.”
There were companies and booths and people milling about, all the hallmarks of your average conference—except, in 2D (still have yet to go to a 3D one). Walking around this virtual world, controlling my little pixelated avatar, I met the cofounder of my current startup.
This is an anomaly. Usually, socializing on the Internet means double-tapping posts, commenting, and once in a blue moon, sliding into the DMs. On most platforms, users sign up as strangers and often remain as such.
Is the Metaverse the future? Or maybe, most existing platforms are just poorly designed for facilitating meaningful relationships.
In this article, I’d like to delve into the principal components of friendship formation, and then take a brief look at platform design through those lenses. You can also try applying these ideas to your own life. Which aspects of your own life could be altered for better connections?
How Friendships are Made
Deep friendships lead to greater happiness in life
- decades of research in social psychology
Different cultural contexts influence who we label and how we perceive “friends.” Americans tend to call distant acquaintances and even people they just met “friends” while cultures in countries like Germany or China may reserve that term for only the closest of relationships.
I’ll define a friend as someone with whom there is a mutually beneficial long-term connection, based on trust and shared values. We will treat friendship as a spectrum that ranges from strangers all the way up to best friends.
A great deal of research has been done to explore how friendships form, the environment and community in which that happens, and how an individual may go about developing friendships. Given the right context, people will naturally become acquaintances, and a few might even become friends. I will try to summarize what that ideal context looks like.
There are essentially four principal components to friendship formation: proximity, similarity, reciprocation, and disclosure. When all these factors are present, friendships tend to form.
The first requirement for any relationship is proximity. We can define social proximity as the likelihood of interacting with another person in a given environment. On the high end of the spectrum, we have nightclubs packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and on the low end, maybe the Sahara desert.
If you never bump into someone, you’re obviously not going to be friends with them. Without proximity, friendship is impossible.
Frequent, serendipitous meetings are key to establishing familiarity between strangers. In this sense, an environment can have too much proximity, where you might meet someone only to lose them in the crowd.
An optimal environment is one where the odds of meeting the same people again and again are high enough so that it actually happens, but low enough such that you end up meeting a large variety of people.
The second factor to consider is similarity. Similarity can be as simple as a shared context—working in the same company, living in the same neighborhood—it can also be about how much we share in personality or background with another person.
If social proximity determines who we can interact with at all, similarity is the criteria by which we decide who to invest in.
If you value multiculturalism or other philosophies that celebrate human variety, this topic may raise an eyebrow. However, we can only invest in so many friendships, and decades of research have shown that humans use similarity as a compass and a filter for other people.
Without similarity, friendship is still possible, but unlikely.
One thing to note is that perceived similarity matters more than actual similarity.
It is very hard to judge somebody’s true character, even after several meetings, so we tend to rely on superficial details when gauging similarity. Research has shown that perceived similarity is a greater predictor of long-term friendship than objective measurements of similarity.
We’ve covered the two prerequisites for friendship, proximity and similarity. Reciprocity is the main engine that actually drives the relationship.
Reciprocity is essentially a feedback loop between two people: Alice does something that benefits Bob at her own cost. Bob observes feedback from Alice’s action, updates his impression of her, and responds. In a great relationship, this cycle will go on indefinitely.
The language of reciprocity comes from economics, and one can imagine reducing friendship formation to a merely capitalist exchange of money and wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Reciprocation can take the form of any of the following:
Recognition or attention
Friendships tend to fizzle out when exchanges aren’t properly reciprocated. The good news is that lapsed friendships tend to be easier to restart than new friendships. As long as no bridges were burned.
The final factor necessary for deep friendships is safe disclosure.
As a relationship deepens, reciprocity shifts from superficial exchanges to riskier trust-building interactions. Key to building trust is the context and ability to reveal novel or guarded truths to another.
An environment that discourages or does not allow for personal and intimate exchanges between people will never facilitate deep connections. It might not even facilitate shallow connections, since people won’t see any long-term benefits from interacting with others.
Disclosure is inherently risky. If failure to reciprocate hurts, failure to reciprocate a personal disclosure hurts far more. This can fracture or antagonize relations if the relationship is not strong enough. But some risk is necessary to take relationships to the next level.
Designing for Friendship
With these factors in mind, let’s try to put them into the context of social platform design:
Proximity: Ensure users regularly encounter other users, recognizing familiar profiles over time, and serendipity will happen.
Similarity: Create shared contexts that facilitate user expression of identities, values, and goals, which lead to alignment and connection.
Reciprocity: Incentivize mutual interactions and exchanges that are beneficial to both parties. Repeated interactions strengthen bonds.
Disclosure: Further increase trust between users by providing spaces and features where users can disclose vulnerabilities, test boundaries, etc.
How well do your favorite Internet platforms meet these criteria? Could they be doing better?
I’ve got some ideas on how to implement these principles in practice. But that’ll have to wait for a future article.
Until next time,
PS this article was heavily inspired by a wonderful presentation given by game designer Daniel Cook
for reading drafts of this
Special thanks to