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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Early social networking anxiety

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.”

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