First there was the ancestral environment, way back in the Great Rift Valley days, one million years ago: early human beings live in semi-nomadic groups of no more than a few dozen individuals. Cue "Thus Spake Zarathustra" from "2001: A Space Odyssey," and fast forward to the modern world: human beings live in towns and cities composed of millions of individuals, most of whom they will never meet and are determined to ignore. Fast forward a little more: human beings can now use online social networks to become "friends" with hundreds or even thousands of people they will never meet, and whom they will also end up ignoring. Now, cut to the present: human beings realize this is a stupid waste of time.
Yes, it seems social network users are starting to regret all their promiscuous friend-making, which has resulted (predictably) in a rather cluttered online social experience. People may also be leery about sharing more personal content with their expansive online social networks. And inevitably, the pendulum is swinging back: for example, Facebook's new "Cliques" feature allows you to sort your friends into different categories, but I would venture at bottom there is only one real distinction -- between "real" and "fake" friends.
There are also some entirely new social networks dedicated to only genuine relationships. That's the idea behind Path, a new mobile-based social network which describes itself as a "personal network" to distinguish itself from indiscriminate, impersonal counterparts like Facebook. The main difference between Path and Facebook seems to be that the former limits you to just 50 friends, compared to Facebook's upper limit of 5,000(!) But Path isn't intended to compete with sites like Facebook; rather, it's supposed to "ride along with them," according to Dave Morin, a former Facebook exec, who co-founded the site with Shawn Fanning and Dustin Mierau of Napster fame.
By presenting Path as an adjunct to Facebook, Morin is positioning it to take advantage of the awkward predicament facing some hyper-social Facebook users. Part of the problem with promiscuous friend-making is that you can't really take it back, without feeling like you're being rude: will your one-time virtual friend notice that he or she has been given the boot? Probably not, but how can you know for sure? Maybe it would just be better to start over again on a new, adjacent social network? Path isn't the first social network to emphasize "real" relationships: back in April I wrote about Rally Up, a location-based social network with iPhone and iPad apps, which allows you to choose from four settings for each friend -- "real," "feed," "lurk," and "mute" -- thus controlling the amount of information about you available to them (and about them delivered to you). Rally up has also foresworn Twitter feeds, in order to keep your friend-related content stream more "pure." Meanwhile Microsoft's short-lived Kin touchscreen phone, which targeted heavy social network users, had a built-in feature -- Loop -- that allowed users to aggregate their "real" friends from across various social networks, moving their profiles and updates to the top of their profiles on each network, thus creating a sort of meta-network of "real" friends.