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The Value of Scarcity in Friendships

I believe that we as a society struggle with being social and making friends at a fundamental level. I believe the crux of the problem is the overwhelming variety and abundance of people we have to choose from. I believe this also drives divorce as well as the ever decreasing number of marriages.

We have a plethora of outlets for meeting and finding friends. We have the traditional outlets like work, church, school, and other organizations, to the newer virtual communities of XBOX Live, World of Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, E-Harmony and OKCupid. However, even with the ability to find people who exactly match a person's own personality, hobbies, and interests and find those people in abundance we fail to make significant long lasting and deep connections. We may connect briefly for activities like games or parties or swap anecdotes in comments, but the relationships just seem to be superficial. Any strong bonds between friends tend to be holdovers from high school or college days.

Maybe that's to be expected. Circumstances dictate the strength and duration of our relationships. In elementary school the circumstances dictate a limited set of choices for friends, usually those within a limited geographic and socio-economic demographic. Say 150-200 students, but more likely a limited subset of those students; 16-24 based on class sizes or the number of children found in two square blocks any given Summer. In that small of a sample set there aren't many alternatives. Cliques will form based on common play styles or interests, but the potential for switching cliques is constrained. Children have to learn how to ignore the bad aspects of their social circle in order to keep the good bits.

When children move up to middle school and high school their options open up. Schools may include 400-1000 students and while class sizes may remain at 16-24 students, students mix with other students in the hall and elective classes increasing their exposure to 100-200 students on a regular basis. Similarly during summer they have greater freedom to roam their neighborhood, meaning greater exposure to options. They may largely stick with their elementary and neighborhood school mates, but there is greater opportunity for switching or "trading up." In these cases the cliques become more defined and begin to take on labels; popular kids, jocks, nerds, stoners, etc.,. Children may intuitively seek out new friends that have attributes of their previous friends, but lack some of the original's idiosyncrasies. They may or may not discard the original friend.

College and early adulthood represent a further growth in choices in friends. Class sizes in college are significantly larger and don't follow the typical homeroom concept found in earlier schools. The population is geographically diverse and there may be other outlets such as job, bars, and other activities that allow people to meet outside of their normal constrained parameters. Friendships formed during these periods tend to be more casual, centered around hobbies or fun activities. It may be easier to have more casual friendships that are easily discarded due to the constantly moving and changing nature of the persons life during this time. Additionally with even more choices in potential candidates, there aren't any constraints on the person to stick with a particular person or group. They can simply move on to something more interesting that requires less effort.

Many of the friendships formed in high school and college linger well into adulthood, changing only in case of significant life changes (death, marriage, children, significant moves). For the most part they are stable. While high school relationships are deeper, college relationships may be spoken of more fondly but be less deeply.

Later adulthood provides significant challenges to forming long lasting or deep relationships. The options available to an adult are enormous work, church, bars, group activities, online outlets, sporting events, etc.,. However, there are constraints that reduce the number of suitable candidates. Such constraints are work fraternization policies, marital status, children, decreased time flexibility, diverse geography, reduced leisure time, social pressures. These constraints either force the person to rely on existing friendships, reduce effort in seeking new friendships, or optimize their process for finding new friendships.

The optimization process requires that the person find the most suitable candidate to fulfill a particular need with the least amount of effort, both short and long term. People will test the waters and at the first sight of something not quite to their liking they may opt to seek a different candidate. They may have an ideal candidate in their head or may be avoiding certain traits that they've grown to dislike; like loud talking, smoking, or facial hair. With online venues the person has an even greater ability to optimize the selection process, since the candidates appearance, habits, likes, dislikes, and other personal details may be readily available. This allows the person to sort through hundreds of potential candidates without ever getting emotionally invested.

Maybe their looking for a friend like they saw in a movie once. Maybe they're looking for a friend just like their old high school friend who has since moved on. Maybe they're looking for some aspect like artiness, fitness, motivation, or some other gap they feel like they are missing in their life. One person may match 90% but be too eccentric, while another isn't as eccentric but is too conservative, while another is neither too eccentric nor conservative but reminds the person of a slovenly college room mate.

The problem is in the fact that the reverse is true. So while person A is sorting through candidates finding the best matches so is person B. When person A finally settles on suitable candidates and contacts person B, person B may go through the same optimization process and reject person A as a suitable candidate. This reduces the potential available candidates for both people. So while there is a great abundance initially, the optimization process a person uses reduces the matching candidate set down to near zero.

The fact is that without some constraint to force a person to make a selection, the optimization process may go on forever. Constraints may exist for the person. For instance, they may need an activity partner by a specific date, biological factors of childbearing, or just general pressure from loneliness may force compromise. But if all things are equal and no specific constraints present, people will continue to pass over candidates for the smallest infractions.

One possibility to counter this optimization process, at least in an online setting, is to introduce artificial scarcity. The mechanism for introducing this scarcity is key to its eventual success or failure. If the mechanism is just to present fewer candidates, participants may see that as a lack of people buying into the site and move on to what is perceived to be larger and more well established communities. Instead the site should look at how they can promote and incentivize the user's adoption of the reduced candidate list.

For instance, the user may get access to a few initial candidates and be asked to complete a few easy tasks before receiving more candidates. The tasks should take no more than 30 seconds to a minute and be portrayed as being beneficial to the user. In this scenario the user logs in and is given a small set of candidates to peruse along with a request to complete a simple profile. For completing the profile they get access to an extra few candidates. These candidates should match the level of effort the user has invested with one or two candidates that have extra detail to entice the user. To get more or better candidates the user must complete successive stages of tasks. Rating another user, providing feedback on a user's profile, completing more detail on their own profile and interests, posting photos, engaging other users, all will open access to new candidates and options. This produces a game like setting with reachable achievements at the same time that it provides feedback on how individuals can get better responses, refine their sales pitch, and grow their social network.

It's important though that in these tasks users are constrained in one specific way, they MUST interact in a meaningful way with the candidates on their list before being provided with a different sample set. This interaction can take the form of direct communication via chat or e-mail or in group chats with several users at once, some users may be asked to participate in challenges or exercises that build camaraderie. Each interaction gets them a point which might increase their rank on the site or go towards some sort of purchase (gifts, extra options, etc.,.) A bonus would be to connect both the online experience and the face-to-face experience. With users giving feedback after face-to-face encounters and receiving rewards for those activities. Points and personal recommendations could lend credibility to a candidate making it easier for users to find suitable candidates without as much worry.

The goal ultimately, is to reduce the sample size that a user has to optimize, reproducing the scarcity seen earlier in life and force them into activities that promote creating friendships while we eliminate behaviors that cause the user to trade-up. Scarcity will help to produce deeper bonds and longer lasting friendships. While it won't work for everyone, hopefully the balance of reward versus risk will keep people coming back and/or recommending the process to new users.