It's clear social media has changed the roles of friends, just like it's changed the role of brands. The average person on Facebook has 338 friends. That's more than double Dunbar's number, which posits that people can only maintain real friendships and acquaintances with a total of 150 people.
As a result, Facebook has stretched our definition of a "friend." If you are a decade or more out of high school, for instance, you may have unwisely friended all your former classmates, only to find that you now have excruciatingly quotidian updates from people you don't really know or care about anymore.
What's more, the disembodied representations on Facebook often bear no semblance to reality. A 2015 Pew study found that 85% of respondents thought people exhibit themselves differently on social media than in real life, and 77% thought people's social media selves were less authentic.
How brands became "social media" friends
Brands stepped into this position with gusto. Almost immediately, brands found that their social media presence got more engagement if they established a unique identity. Instead of using social media as a conduit for the usual fare like product announcements, recipes and new ads, many developed chatty personas that mimicked those of real friends in the platform's feed.
As some psychologists have noted, we give roles to the friends in our lives -- some are the life of the party, some are confidants, some make us laugh. Human beings learn these roles over time and value their consistency, which is why it has been easy for brands harness this expectation. Denny's is the jokester on Twitter; Red Bull is the gnarly dude who is always engaging in dangerous activities; and Patagonia is your greener-than-thou friend who constantly sends snaps from far-flung exotic places.
This friend-positioning works. When Chipotle faced a food safety crisis in early 2016, Interbrand Executive Director Rebeca Arbona said that the restaurant chain was like a friend to many consumers and "if you know a person really well and you like them, you're going to forgive a lot."
Out of the friend zone
Unfortunately for brand managers, this notion of brands as social media pals appears to be nearing its end. Snap's decision to purify the friend feed is just the latest nail in the coffin. Facebook long ago made it harder for brands' organic posts to appear in the News Feed. Not surprisingly, a sponsored status update just doesn't have that same friendly ring to it.
Google has always kept brands in the Promotions folder in Gmail so users don't confuse their messages for ones from real-life contacts. The last social media bastion for brands is Twitter, but that platform has always been more about sharing and reading news than promoting warm and fuzzy friend feelings.
The ability for brands to act as stand-ins for friends is becoming untenable. That's probably good news if we want to keep our friendships in non-commercial territory. But for brands, it means that they will need find a new way to connect with consumers -- and stop trying to friend them. Connection, not friendship, is really what consumers want from the brand relationship anyway.