I've recently come across a few newspaper and radio items about Facebook "friends" not being friends in any older sense of the word. The usual observations are that you can have many more Facebook friends than you could have conventional friends; that Facebook friends may include people you don't know in any conventional sense; and that your Facebook friends may not behave in a way that friends traditionally ought. (The last point comes up, for example, in reports of tragedies of people posting suicidal messages on Facebook, but no-one responding seriously).
This is not another one of those articles. Let's take it as settled that Facebook has coined a new sense of the word "friend". Computing often does that - "mouse", "menu", "password" are examples. When co-opting any word from the real for your interface, the existing resonances are a two-edged sword - from the name, users may "get" what this function is for, or they may (like the journalists decrying "friends") "get" something else. But it's that or invent new terms ("dongle"), or use old words in a bizarre way ("tweet" in Twitter).
There are a number of usability issues too (and "friends" does well when you think about it in these ways):
- If the term is going to appear on interface buttons, breadcrumb trails etc. it is useful if it is short (so "friend" is better than "aquantaince" - whcih in any case sounds stuffy and posh, so should probably already be rejected on resonance grounds)
- Helpful if the word is easy to spell and to say, so that customers can re-use it easily (so, again, "friend" is better than "aquantaince")
- Use words that will be understood internationally, if you seek an interntaional audience ("Mate" instead of "Friend" might work in the UK or Australia, but perhaps not in the US. "Buddy" the converse, perhaps).
- Avoid words that already have any confusing senses ("Mate" instead of "Friend" might alarm non-native speakers looking it up in a dictionary)
I don't recall other adopted terms ("contacts" in Linked in, "followers" in Twitter) causing as many column inches as "friends" though. Perhaps "friends" is particularly redolent a term, or just particularly useful for "we-are-all-going -to-hell-in-a-bucket" journalism ("Young people today, their "friends" are not friends - In my day...."). Well, in the words of the Grateful Dead, "I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe / But at least I'm enjoying the ride"