When Brands Become Friends: The 4th Evolution Of The Online Friendship Concept

Until not so long ago, friendships were simple: to follow the most common universal definition, friendship is a relationship between two humans that is based upon mutual empathy, understanding, trust and have the other person best interests at heart. 

In the early 2000s, with the rise of social networks such as MySpace or Friendster, we became aware of several new types of friendships, the kind that didn't settle with all the "classic" definitions of the term and, in a way, changed the very concept of online friendship: During the early years of social networking, we first  encountered "collectors," people that are "friending" other people not because they care for their interests nor share mutual trust (most of the time the "friends" don't know each other at all), but only to add more friends to their list and accumulate popularity on the social network.

The third turnover of the friendship concept occurred with the rise of commercial involvement in social networks and the introduction of "fake" users. Although fake users on social networks existed even before the Friendster-MySpace-Facebook era, they always implemented the same rules of classic friendships: Seeking approval and trust, creating relationships based on empathy etc. It was the branded fake users in the late 2005 social ecosystem that "friended" people on social networks just to convey a commercial message or a special offer. The branded fake users often used a human avatar, just like a real person or used a fictional character avatar, all to appear human to the friended person while using the social network's user system to make new friends for the brand.  

Brand-User separation

Facebook's page system (formally the fan page system) separated the people from the brands by creating different types of pages to create (user profiles and community pages), thus defining a very clear border for users and regulating the user-brand communication. 

This separation gave birth to a magical world of using Facebook as a digital asset and a social beachhead for many brands and local businesses. Users can "like" a page, recommending its content to friends (hopefully true friends) and participate on various interactive promotions using an application system available only to pages. 

When brands become friends

When Facebook launched its timeline feature for pages earlier last year, it created a unified "Facebook experience" for all users making brand pages and user profiles visually similar, while keeping both systems technologically separate. 

Moreover, Facebook enabled branded pages to communicate with the social network users using the in-site messages system, mostly reserved for communication between users. By doing both of these things Facebook has done a great step towards humanizing the brands and making them as close as it gets to being a normal user profile. 

For teens, who were born into the special dynamics for the social world, making this unified experience creates a new type of friendship: Brand as a friend. This type of friendship is unique and somewhat different than anything we have seen so far as brands openly communicate with the young audience and engage in public or private conversation. 

Teens talk freely with the brands in the same way that they are engaging conversation with a friend, often not knowing or caring that every brand has its own team of social media managers talking to the younger audience. With brand as a friend, major companies don't have to hide behind sneaky avatars and fake users while trying to reach out to teens, and have the potential to reach out to teens while still maintaining their identity and social power. 

It's too soon to tell what will be the impact of brands’ humanization process on Facebook, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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