After the first keynote at AoIR 2009, I'm now in a panel on last.fm that begins with Nancy Baym. She asks what the term 'friend' means in a social networking site; this both in an interpersonal context and in the context of society as a whole, where some suggest that the term 'friend' is losing its meaning through its use on social networking sites. Last.fm was founded in London in 2005, and now has more than 35 million users; it is highly international, and based in the first place on the use of audio scrobbling application which share what its users are listening to.
Sampling for a survey of last.fm users is difficult, of course; this was done here through the on-site discussion fora, but not all users of the site go there at all. This particular study had some 559 respondents, with an age range between 18 and 57 years. Respondents came from 48 countries, with the US, UK, and Germany figuring most prominently. Nancy asked users to pick a random last.fm friend and answer questions about these friends, relating to demographics, relational characteristics, and a relational development scale.
Motivations for friending turned out to be a shared taste in music, a shared musical history, profile characteristics (avatars and usernames), journals, responses to one's own profile, last.fm groups, etc. There was a moderately low relational development, with homophily mainly in age, musical taste, but not in sex or location, and users used 2.3 other media forms on average to communicate with their friends.
So are there specific types of friendships here? Nancy suggests that there are six types of friends: people who met on last.fm, divided into linkers, music explorers, and last.fm socialisers; people who met online, but not on last.fm (online socialisers); and local socialisers and local music socialisers.
Linkers have a static connection, very little communication, feel that it would have been rude not to friend, have the most recent friendships, and a low relational development; music explorers connect only because of the music, and have moderate last.fm and little off-site communication, they share musical tastes and histories, as well as other similarities, have the oldest friendship partners and low relational development; last.fm socialisers enjoy the site as a social space, do the most communication through it, met somewhere on the site, are interested but may not share one another's musical taste, talk about music as well as other things, appreciate their differences, tend to be international and same-sex; online socialisers already knew one another from somewhere else online, and may also have met face-to-face, communicate a lot online but not through the site; local socialisers with high levels of face-to-face, phone, and online communication, but not through the site, observing one another's listening and appreciate the sense of connection but don't talk much about music, they have a moderately high relational development; and local music socialisers, who have the highest relational development, with high communication through all media,even moderately through the site, with music as a motivation for friending and an observation of each other's listening patterns.
So there are different types of friends with different norms for friend interaction; people are forming new relationships as well as reproducing and enhancing them through the site, and music does play a role in these friendships, but especially at the local level. Of course these are ideal types, and there is also a lot of overlap between them.