I remember how it started. Emails began showing up: “Alfred E. Neuman would like to invite you to join Facebook! Just click here to begin.” A couple, then a handful, then dozens. Clearly, there was a wave rolling in; did I want to catch it? Initially, the answer was, “Not really.” That is, until I was informed of a Facebook group forming around therapists who’d worked at the same clinic. It seemed like a good professional connection, so I signed up.

That was on what I came to call Facebook Day. It deserves its own title, because I was unprepared for the (over-)stimulating experience of learning my way around a vast online social network—and for some of the anxiety that can come from the phenomenon known as “friending.”

When you join a social networking site such as Facebook, MySpace or Friendster, the whole point is to link you to your “friends,” so that you can stay “connected.” And perhaps you’ve had the experience that once you start accepting and issuing friend requests, a snowball starts rolling down the mountain and the friend requests multiply exponentially.

And here’s where begins the reaction that I call Early Facebook Anxiety.

The problem, I think, comes from the fact that the word “friend” (either as a noun or as a verb) isn’t really sufficient to describe all the different varieties of relationships we have with people from the present or the past, and how close (or far) we’d prefer to be in each case. But “friend” is all they offer, so we’re forced to evaluate each request and just Confirm or Ignore. For example:

  • How well do I know him? Is he an actual friend, or will accepting the request make him more of a real life friend? Do I want that?
  • How much will she know about me if I accept her friend request? On Facebook, for example, just about everything you do there is public to your friends (and sometimes to friends of friends) unless you tweak the complex privacy settings.
  • I haven’t seen this person in twenty years! Did I like him well enough back then? Did he like me well enough back then? Do I like the Me From Back Then well enough?
  • But she’s my boss/family member/neighbor! I’m not sure I want to lower those boundaries quite this much.
  • He didn’t accept my friend request! What does that mean?

Clearly, there’s a difference between what we call a friend in Real Life and what a social networking site means by giving someone else the status of “friend.” It’s OK to recognize that difference, and it’s healthy to decide what sorts of relationships will be in your online social network and which won’t.