To Facebook Friend or Not to Friend?
Late to the Social Media Party
“This year, for the first time, more than half of the US population will use Facebook.”
So proclaimed a recent report, but it is, of course, already outdated. It was outdated, in fact, one minute after it was published, because at that very moment I signed onto Facebook for the first time.
I know. I was late to the social media party. I resisted for a long time. My generation was raised to be more private. Communications were personal, one-on-one. To me, Facebook seemed a return to the days of multi-user party telephone lines, when the operator—and anybody and their mother—could and would listen in.
For years, I prided myself on standing apart from the Facebook nation. “It’s for the kids.” “I’m too busy.” I even resisted the beguiling thought of using it to “spy” on my children, and boy, was that tempting!
But now I have succumbed, succumbed in a big way. Although I must be honest. The reason, initially, wasn’t social, but professional. I wanted to promote this blog. Clearly, Facebook is the place to be if you want to be seen and heard and market yourself.
That said, Facebook is addictive. And I’m hooked.
Each night, late into the night, I scan for updates from friends (and a few foes), search for long-lost school chums, seek news about relatives I don’t actually want to talk to, and (I confess) intel about the occasional old boyfriend.
But as hooked as I am, I’m also troubled, deeply troubled, by something. What does friendship mean in the era of Zuckerberg? What does the term “friend” even mean? And what is the etiquette associated with Facebook friendships? I’ve heard of friends with benefits, but what are the benefits of all these Facebook friends?
A Friend by Any Other Name?
In my struggle to understand, I started with the basics. Merriam-Webster defines a friend as “a person who you like and enjoy being with.” Well, that certainly eliminates lots of potential “friend” requests.
Yet, if I want to win the unstated Facebook “person with the most friends” competition, I cannot afford to be so selective. I mean we all do that, right? Check to see who has the most Facebook friends? For me, it’s a lot like high school, surreptitiously peeking to see who got the most yearbook autographs.
For a while, I thought that might be a better word than “friend.” My trusty thesaurus provided 29 synonyms. None were right:
• Comrade – too Soviet
• Compatriot – too patriotic
• Confidant – too close to confidential, the antithesis of the “tell-all” world of social media
• Intimate – too, well, intimate
• Soulmate – way too intimate (and optimistic)
• Playmate – too youthful
• Colleague – too LinkedIn-ish
• Sidekick – too guys’ movie-ish
I likewise vetoed “chum,” “cohort,” “pal,” and “buddy.”
I guess Facebook is right. “Friend” it is. OK, Zuckerberg, you win.
To Facebook Friend or Not to Friend?
As a Facebook newbie, I’m also struggling with several “to friend or not to friend” etiquette questions.
1. Can I “friend” cool people who know my way-cooler-than-me friends?
I’m lucky enough to serve on the board of trustees of a noted theatre company. Thanks to the amazingly talented theater folk there, I’m receiving some impressive “you may know so and so” messages. I, of course, don’t know these people, but I desperately would like to. Will those hip, artsy types kindly accept my “friend” requests? If they don’t, how will I deal with their rejection? Will I take it personally? Will it impact my ability to love their creative works going forward? Will I—in my heart—un-fan them?
2. How do I respond to “friend” requests from people I don’t know?
Will it hurt their feelings if I don’t accept their overtures? Will they think I’m mean or a snob? Will they even care? And why are they trying to friend me in the first place?
3. You know the expression “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Well, on FB, it seems “the friend of my friend is my friend.” Why?
Why do I want to be friends with somebody I’ve never met just because we have a mutual friend? I don’t get it. My friend Jane and I love literature. Jane also loves cats. I don’t. One of her cat rescue cohorts asked to “friend” me. Why would I do that? What would we talk about? Cats? I think not! Our mutual friend Jane? That would be rude, won’t it? So, what’s the point? What am I missing? Please explain.
4. Should I “friend” a woman I worked with two decades ago?
Why is she sending me a friend request out of the blue? We were never close socially. Does she want a job recommendation? If so, shouldn’t she contact me via LinkedIn?
And Still, I Worry
5. Should I “friend” the Moroccan tour guide of my globetrotting friend Rachelle?
I saw the man’s name in that “people you may know” prompt. I actually want to go to Morocco, but somehow friending an unknown man on the Internet seems wrong. What would Emily Post—or my mother—say? Oh, never mind. I know what my mother would say.
6. Is it wrong, as in stalker-wrong, to search for acquaintances on Facebook, read all about them, and occasionally re-visit their pages, but not ask to “friend” them?
Yes, I admit it. I do that with a woman I was once close to but then fell out of touch with. Maybe it’s just idle curiosity. Maybe I’m noisy. Maybe I do care about her … a little, just not quite enough to make amends.
7. And explain this to me. Why do long lost friends ask to “friend” you, but then never follow up with a personal “Hey, let’s catch up on the last four decades” message?
Why bother to get in touch at all, if they don’t really want to be in touch? Is it that they expect me to write the first chatty note to demonstrate how much I’ve missed them in my life? Are they risk-averse, putting their toe in the water, but not risking getting wet until they know I’m aboard the friendship ship?
8. And about that “who has the most Facebook friends” competition: I see that some people claim to have 2000+ friends, but I don’t buy it. How is that possible?
It’s like those men who claim they’ve had sex with hundreds of women. I don’t believe them for a minute. And anyway, who has the energy for that much sex … or friends?
Maybe It’s Me
Maybe I’m the one with the problem, asking all these questions, struggling to fit in with the “in” Facebook crowd.
For me, Facebook all too often offers an unreal world of happy faces, upbeat personal messages (offset by shrill political ones), and rainbows. It’s a 24/7 version of those holiday newsletters people send. You know, the ones where people brag about son Billy receiving a four-year scholarship to U Penn but fail to mention that Uncle Billy Bob got sent to The Pen for 4-10 years?
Obsessive Compulsive Behavior
And the truth is, I’m obsessive. I don’t just check Facebook at night, but multiple times throughout the day. And in the process, I have unleashed a new way to worry.
Recently I searched for my childhood best friend. The good news: I found her on Facebook. The bad news: she hasn’t posted anything in three years. My first thought was – G-d forbid – she died. I searched the Internet for an obituary and did not find one. So, where is she? Does she have a dread disease that precludes using a computer? Is she in the Witness Protection Program and, if so, is she safe and happy in her new, secret life?
I hadn’t thought about this woman for decades and now I obsessively worry about her. I don’t need this added aggravation in my life. I have enough problems.
Ultimately, my biggest Facebook fear is this: one day in a bad mood, I will respond to that teasing, taunting “What’s on your mind?” prompt with a completely inappropriate message, criticizing somebody for what I consider an inane or an annoying post. Then, heaven help me. I’ll be the one needing the Witness Protection Program!
Maybe I should quit when I’m ahead. Maybe I should just “unfriend” Facebook.
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