A Facebook “Friend”: What Does That Mean?

Let me share with you something that happened to me that helps illustrate the way in which “connectedness” in social networking can lie in the eye of the beholder.

About ten years ago, I was working at the same place as “Diane,” and she became a short-term friendly acquaintance. Since that project ended, I hadn’t seen or talked to her for all of those years, though through community connections her name would be mentioned from time to time. And she was a “friend” of dozens of my friends on Facebook.

So about a year ago, when I received a Facebook friend request from Diane, I thought, “Well. I’m surprised that she remembered me from our brief conversations years ago. But, nice.” I accepted the friend request. Diane is a fairly consistent poster on Facebook, so I have been kept fairly well informed about events in her professional and family lives, but in this case the “friending” did not lead to actual person-to-person communication. We were just in each other’s networks.

A few weeks ago, I spotted Diane at a public event, caught her eye and greeted her. She looked quizzically at me, gave me an uncertain half-smile, and asked to be reminded of my name and how we knew each other. I refreshed her memory and thought, “This is odd. You’re the one who sent me a friend request!” The rest of our brief exchange was friendly enough, but it left me thinking.

So what happened here?

It looks like Diane and I each had different perceptions of what a “friend” means on Facebook. It’s possible (without presuming to know what she actually thinks) that Diane has adopted the philosophy of “friends” as encompassing anyone in your larger network (i.e. many friends in common), or anyone you’ve ever had an association with, or some other highly-inclusive model that led her to send a friend request to someone of whom she had a vague (or no) memory. My own approach seems different, and has led to a different policy on Facebook friending than Diane has. (Also worth noting in this story is that after I confirmed her friend request, neither one of us sent the email of greeting and catch-up that often happens when Facebook brings us together with someone from our past. What protocol do you follow when you connect with someone from your past?)

It’s not that one of us is right, and the other wrong. It’s just that Diane and I have developed different definitions of what it means to be a Facebook “friend,” leading to different online social behavior.

What’s yours? Has it led to confusion when someone else in (or out of) your social network takes a different approach?

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Presentation: Counseling Internet and Online Issues

I’m presenting a program on “Counseling Internet and Online Issues” at the 2nd Virtual Conference on Counseling — in Second Life!

I’ll be talking about historical context, basic psychological features of cyberspace, and applicable examples of situations.

It’s next Wednesday, 9/15, at 3 pm Pacific/6 pm Eastern, at the Counselor Education in Second Life center SLURL Port Dervon 44, 65, 26.

It’s free. Please stop by!
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Recap: LIFE 2.0 Film Panel

I spoke on the panel “Logging Off: Are Online Games Addictive?” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. As it turned out, the group conversation served a dual purpose. It was an adjunct to a screening of the film Life 2.0, which portrays various inhabitants of Second Life, but it also opened up a larger conversation about online experiences, the nature of addiction, and when and how we might decide that our online behavior is “a problem.”


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LIFE 2.0 Film Panel: Is Online Gaming Addictive?

I’ll be appearing on a panel at the San Francisco International Film Festival entitled “Logging Off: Is Online Gaming Addictive?” as an adjunct to their screening of a documentary about Second Life entitled Life 2.0:

Sunday, May 2
Film: 1:00 pm
Panel: 3:00 pm
Sundance Kabuki Cinema
1881 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

Tickets to the panel are free, but require a reservation. Stop by and join the conversation!

Life 2.0 at the San Francisco International Film Festival

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Time Online: How Much Is Too Much?

There’s a new survey released by Rasmussen Reports — most commonly known for their political polling — that describes peoples’ perceptions of online use. The bottom-line statistic is that 23% of adults surveyed believe that they spend too much time online. Drill down the numbers, and it gets more interesting.


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Cyberchondria: An Example of Misplaced Focus

Among the daily multitude of news coverage discussing the psychological and social impacts of the Internet comes an article describing “cyberchondria“:

But what really ails me? Cyberchondria, loosely defined as the baseless fueling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms due to Internet research, or, as I like to think of it, Googling oneself into a state of absolute, clinical hysteria over every last pain, itch and strange freckle on your body.

It’s easy to lose our bearings on a phenomenon like this and blame the Internet itself as the new social hazard that gives rise to this condition. It’s even in the language used here: cyberchondria as a diagnosis, and web searches as the cause. But actually (and the article does acknowledge, if not fully explore, this point), what we’re seeing here is an anxiety problem that isn’t created online — it just expresses itself there. People have had excessive worry and imagined catastrophic outcomes from mild symptoms for centuries — they just got their medical information elsewhere, until very recently.

If a person is having excessive anxiety about nightmarish health scenarios whenever a cough or itch starts, then it’s the obsessive thoughts and the compulsions to act on them that we should be examining and working to relieve. The Internet is just the arena in which those obsessions or compulsions play out. Google and WebMD do make it a lot easier and faster to act upon an impulse than, say, traveling to a medical school library — but it’s a mistake to conclude that a person is developing health-related anxieties because so much unfiltered medical information is now available online.

The good news is that with skilled counseling, these types of problems are treatable. And so I say again: “Don’t blame the Internet!”

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Email separation anxiety

As we’ve grown accustomed to having Internet access at all times, we’ve come to expect and rely on it. So it’s not surprising that when the broadband connection goes down, the 3G network fades out, or the email client is acting up, a certain anxiety can set in. Some psychologists have even coined a whimsical term for it: “discomgoogolation.”

Clinical monitoring of heavy web users revealed their brain activity and blood pressure increased markedly when they were cut off. The stress of being disconnected was equivalent to that of running half an hour late for a key meeting, being about to sit an important exam or, in the worst cases, being sacked.


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