Monday, March 22, 2010

Social Networking Part II: Define “Friend”

So I have way more friends than I ever thought I had. When I hit the 50 friend mark on Facebook I was a little astounded. Do I actually know 50 people well enough to call them friends? I don’t think so. Presently, the count sits at 200. I did not throw a party or even announce it in my status when I hit this number. It is significant only for one reason which I will get to later.

Facebook has redefined friendship as we know it. I Googled it to find out for sure. (Who needs a memory anymore when we have Google to do it for us?). Being an academic, I sat for a long time thinking up the best search terms possible and came up with “Facebook and friendship.” What I found were headings like these: Is Facebook misreading friendship? Is Facebook making friendship too easy? MySpace vs. Facebook: Is friendship real? Or my personal favorite: How Facebook can ruin your friendships. Nobody see’s facebook’s definition of friendship as a particularly positive thing.

Rules for “the list”

I think most people on facebook have some kind of rule-set about who gets included on “the list.” Some people are more restrictive than others. Ironically enough, the most restrictive people seem to also have low participation. So really, what does it matter? Rarely are people completely non restrictive. I have one “friend” whose present friend count is 2,536. My newsfeed tells me he adds about 8 friends a day. He falls into that category of friends my last post referred to as “shameless self promoters.” He’s a writer. He has about 12 books out. I’ve met him in person once and it was a significant and interesting enough interaction (and likely, one day, worthy of a blog post of its own) to warrant a facebook friendship. But where does he find all these people to be friends? He can’t possibly know 2500+ people that well and intimately. I keep him on my friends list still because he entertains me (and he entertained me in person the day I met him and he made me blush  -- which is hard to do -- so he earned my respect). He writes his statuses in verse. He refuses to use capital letters. And he posts these interesting photo diaries. I watched his little romance with his present girlfriend unfold because of this. He takes pictures of everything including the refridgerator isle of the grocery store. He’s quite active on facebook and he’s quite personal as well. I have a good sense of who he is as a person because of what he does on here. And so do 2,535 other people.

I only have a small number of friends on “the list” that fall into the category of people I’ve only met once or twice. My general rule is that I have to know you in person, past or present, for you to make the list. And there is only one person on my version of “the list” that is the exception to that rule and that was for photo sharing purposes with my running group. I am sure that one day I will meet her in person. It just hasn’t happened yet. My other rule is: No Students. That is simply a boundary I will not cross.

Still afraid I won’t be invited to the party

It was the number one item on my list of 25 things about me. “It scares me to friend request people on facebook. I’m 38 years old and I’m still afraid I won’t be invited to the party.” Here is the explanation.

I find on facebook that people fall into one of two categories. You are either a friend accepter or you are a friend requester. Because I am on facebook quite regularly I fall into the latter category, probably because people on facebook cross my path via natural forces. But you better believe that unless I have a really comfortable relationship with you in person and in the present tense, if I have chosen to add you as a friend, I’ve been contemplating pressing that “Add as a friend” button for weeks, and sometimes months, before I go through with it. And it is rare that I add someone the first time I see them. Sometimes I sit on a large list of people in the back of my mind (I don’t make physical lists, not even for the grocery store) and then do a mass friend request session and add 15 to 30 people at once. Why do I do this? It makes it less obvious if you choose to turn me down. As I said, I’m 38 years old and I’m still afraid I won’t be invited to the party.

Facebook likes to taunt you into considering adding people in their little suggestions box. “You have 10 mutual friends with so-and-so.” Most of the time the people that show up in those boxes are people I have never met and do not know at all. But sometimes they are people I know casually. I cross paths on a regular basis with a good chunk of the athletic community in this city. It is a small enough community that there is one degree of separation with virtually everyone. There are a couple people in particular I am thinking of that I have added from a facebook prompt and none of them ended up adding me. But strangely enough, none of them rejected me either.

This is a particular friending behavior that I really do not understand, letting friend requests sit un-answered, like you can’t make a decision if someone qualifies to be on your facebook friend list or not? Most of the time when friend requests go unanswered, I’ve already forgotten I sent it and then I see it, weeks or months later when scanning my “connections” and I see that “friend request pending” notation beside a particular individual and I think, “hmmm.” The majority of requests that sit in limbo like that are to people who make only a rare appearance on facebook, but there have been a few that have been to people that I cross paths with often enough that I find it odd. And some of these people, while they won’t answer my request, have absolutely no problem at all commenting right below me on a status of one our 10 mutual friends.

I guess you simply don’t like the cut of my jib. I’ll just have to live with that. But I am taking it personally. Just so you know. I added you because I wanted to get to know you better. And the odd thing is that when I see some of these people in person now it just feels slightly more awkward. Because one thing you can never never do and is a huge social taboo is ask someone in person why they won’t be your friend on facebook. Never to be done. At least not by me.

But it has made me think. You can have rules such as: “I will only have people I am truly friends with on my facebook friend list,” but because of the facebook revolution, is the reverse also true? You cannot really be considered a friend in person until you are also friends on facebook?

But, like I said, everyone has their own rules about what the purpose of facebook is for them and that is to be respected. I may place a lot of weight on facebook friending (and unfriending) behavior but I do believe it is more average to simply not give a shit.

I added someone who worked with me early on in my facebook adventures and he very politely emailed me and told me that he wouldn’t add me. He liked to keep his work life and his private life as separate entities. I found it odd. I’ve drank with him, ran with him, biked with him, flirted with him, I’m on his email list when he sends out messages about his travel adventures. But he won’t be my friend on facebook.

OK. I did appreciate the explanation. But I’m still taking it personally.

Personal trauma generally results in an automatic friend list clean-up

I’m sure there are psychological theories behind this kind of behavior. I don’t know what they are but here are 3 stories.

There are probably 40 or so friends that I have on facebook that I would classify as highly active. Their information permeates my newsfeed. When they disappear for a while I notice. And I worry about them. One such friend was someone I knew in high school and from a job I used to have back then. I would drive him home sometimes and cry on his shoulder about one guy or another. (OK, there was only ONE guy I used to cry about in high school). This friend recently split with his wife. He had been a pretty regular participator on facebook and I could see something coming but I didn’t know what and then one day his relationship status changed and it all came clear. And then he disappeared. So one day I went to check on him and see what was up and I found he was gone. No longer on my friend list. So I searched him and there he was still on facebook but at some point he had removed me. And not just me. We used to have about 18 mutual friends and we were down to about two.

The same thing happened with a former coworker. She and I used to message back and forth regularly discussing some of the goings on in our workplace. She wasn’t the most popular person at our workplace and she had some pretty controversial behaviours but I felt I got along with her well. She had some conflict within a group she was working with and then I heard she resigned. She also was a pretty regular participator on facebook and she disappeared. I went to look for her and she was gone. She had removed virtually everyone associated with our place of employment. No reminders. She never worked here.

I’m a pretty open person. As a writer I have to be. Write what you know is the first lesson in writing school (if such a place exists). Given this rule, inevitably if you are my friend, (or, even more likely, if you are someone who is or was in a relationship with me) at some point I will write something about you. If you have a significant interaction with me and it makes me say WTF, make no mistake I will eventually write about you. Numerous people from my past and present made an appearance in whole or in part in my novels I wrote. Maybe it was a whole scene and maybe it was a just a line of dialogue or maybe it was a description of a particular hand gesture. Those who know I put them in my novel have already forgiven me for my inaccuracies in the name of art. Some of them have had to forgive me for not making them look so good. Building a character is a complicated process. It is like growing a fetus inside you and seeing what is created.

But in this blog I talk about my real life and the people in it. Usually I talk about other people as a preface to saying something about myself (I refer you back to A Reason and a Season). But it is entertainment, make no bones about it. And it is my version of reality and there are two sides to every story. And I will never tell a story about anyone that is so specific that the person would be recognizable universally. You may recognize yourself (or maybe you won’t) but that is likely to be it. Everyone else will just have to wonder.

I told a story in Part I about two halves of a former couple and in which one half of that former couple behaved passive aggressively and used me to try and make his ex girlfriend jealous. There is no doubt about it that I did not appreciate being used like this which is why the story stuck with me in such detail. I’ve also told that story verbally on more than a half dozen occasions as an example of the “many weird things that have happened to me on facebook.”

I also told the story and posted it publicly knowing full well that these two individuals were still on my facebook friend’s list and they could possibly see it. But neither of them have been very active on facebook, so I took a chance that it would float by unnoticed. But not long after I posted that link I was on my own profile page and I noticed that I was back to 200 friends on the nose (and I had just added someone not seconds before and should have been at about 202). If my friend count had been 186 or some other odd number I might not have even noticed. On a lark I decided to search for the male half of that couple on my friends list. He was gone. And we no longer have any mutual friends so they are gone too.

Coincidence? I think not!

She’s still there though. But then again, I didn’t make her look bad.

It made me laugh. Last night anyhow.


George B said...

Bravo. Great stuff, love the writing, the giving of a little bit of yourself here. As far as Facebook goes, I think we agreealot on this. I have some friends who seem to treat it as a race to see who can have the most friends. Some people I know think it's the biggest waste of time ever invented and actually think it is dangerous (maybe it is, just like any tool, it can be misused for harm). Others use it to spit out their every thought, action, belief and feelings, overwhelming you with mindless data that reminds me of looking through the yellow pages... So much clutter it is hard to gleen anything useful. To some, like you, I think, and me, it's a tool, a way to thoughtfully, whimsically, truthfully baring a little bit if our mind and soul to people we care at least a little about. But just a tool, nonetheless.

Lisa said...

I used to get all upset if someone "removed" me as a friend...but really...most of the time I don't even notice...I need to do some FB cleaning...but I'm not at the point where I can ruthlessley remove people without feeling a sense of guilt...must get over that...Great Post!!

Kim said...

I have guilt about removing people too but there are a few that I should. I was 3 people short of 200 and I went in and removed 3 (two were ex students and the 3rd I can't remember anymore). But seeing ex students, even though they graduated made me cringe when I thought of some of the things I said on here at times.

Everyone should do housekeeping on their friends lists once and a while.