What’s a Facebook friend?


I believe that everything happens for a reason if you give it reason, that if you give anything educated-reason and leave that reason unchecked it will make you ignorant, and that if educated-reason is not attempted you have developed a comfort zone which is fundamentally ignorant.


I’m writing this because it would seem that I have developed a certain understanding and comfort level for how Facebook fits into my life. The main idea that I want to cover is about how I, and other peers who use Facebook, might consider what a friend is. I think that my idea about what a friend is, and how much influence I give them, has changed since I started using social networking sites. Because of the increased awareness over security concerns relating to what should and should not be publically available to people using the Internet, I feel compelled to write about what a friend is to me, and how it has changed.


To start, I would like to make the assumption that when I add a friend, giving them access to my Facebook profile, that I am giving them equal access to all of my information and means to communicate with me as every other friend on Facebook. This assumed equality is unlike friend-management, pre- social networking. I am not claiming that my best friends are now the same as my acquaintances on every level. But on some levels they are, primarily because of everyone’s ability to communicate with me and my other friends via my Facebook profile.


Part of this dispersion of access is not without a psychological motivator. It’s evident that what some people say via the Internet is not what would be said in a physical, person-to-person discussion. I feel as though with my 6 years of social networking experience that my perception of what I say online and what I say offline is becoming more the same, at least for their desired effects. But even when it comes to emotionally-weighted messages, people prefer to do it via SMS or via the Internet, because it relieves them of an immediate uncertainty, and because communicating in this fashion has become a norm for many.


These arguments when applied are not how the large majority of the world works. Yes, Facebook is the largest social networking site available with roughly 350,000,000 users. That’s (a not-so-staggering) 5% of the world’s population, presuming that there are 6,800,000,000 people on Earth. Because of the fact that these psychological implications concerning social networking sites are limited to such a small percentage of the world’s population, it’s evident that these are emerging issues. But as more and more people begin to use social networking sites, the impact of having to relearn how to communicate with this new medium will not change.


So I beg the question, how does one learn how to use the granted permissions when given access to a friend’s information? To begin a new line of thought, stemming off paragraph three, sometimes I feel out-of-place when I comment on a picture that I had absolutely nothing to do with. But I have to remind myself that the person posting this picture should also understand that s/he is making it accessible to anyone with permission to access it. Is this an acceptable norm? This notion of commenting on a picture not directly given to me is contrary to the act of handing someone a physical photo book to make comments on. But is this access via social networking sites direct access, even though the author or owner may not have explicitly handed it to me? Do automatic permissions make this a moot point? Is this the emerging norm?


Another example stemming from paragraph three: Every one granted to view my Facebook profile has direct access to sending me a textual message. As of this morning, messaging access is limited to those able to view my profile, either limited or full, which includes my friends and my friends-of-friends. This also includes the Facebook members of groups and fan pages for which I am part of. This issue fits into both the old way of communication, and the new way of utilizing social networking Web sites. Because friends-of-friends (and etcetera) can access my limited profile and send me a message, this is similar to how one could act in the physical world. But what if a friend-of-a-friend lives a large distance away from where I live? Obviously this is an expected or presumed implication of using the Internet in general, but as I mentioned earlier, a Facebook friend doesn’t necessarily mean that they are indeed a trusted friend, but instead, a trusted acquaintance. But the effect and extension of trust becomes exponentially weaker, because an acquaintance’s acquaintance now has the same access to me as my best, close, and well trusted friends. Is this an emerging norm?


To take the presented ideas in paragraph seven further, and to (possibly unbearably) complicate them, I’m going to explore what happens when I am contacted by someone I don’t know, and what the possible emerging norms might be.


Scenario one: I am given a friend request by a friend-of-a-friend, and I have never met this person. I recognize them because I’ve seen this person in photos posted by the friend which links the two of us, but that’s the extent of my knowledge of them. What do I do?


There are four options: (1) I can accept the request, giving them access to my Facebook profile, and the extended access to all of my Facebook friends. (2) I can deny the request. (3) I can send a message and do a number of things, including asking who they are and why they are sending me a friend request. Or (4) I could do nothing. Each one of these reactions to the friend request would obviously have their own respective reactions. And each action may not be given due diligence, because there may be factors that would weigh whichever decision that would prompt for one of four actions. But what is the norm here? What would even cause someone to send a friend request to someone they haven’t had previous communications with? I do not deny that these issues are highly subjective and dependent on a case-by-case scenario. But are there any fundamental norms that are different from how one would operate prior to the existence of social networking sites?


Following scenario one in paragraph nine, I would be inclined to react depending on the circumstances and known reasons behind my perceived experience with the information available to determine the identity of the person sending me a friend request. A mouth full, I know, but there really are a lot of things happening even with this seemingly simple circumstance. Personally, my norm is to react in a security-minded manner, which would include the prior identification of the individual that has sent me the friend request. This act in itself is a popular, emerging norm. Previous to social networking sites, to become a known friend, people would have to interact with me in a like-minded manner, depending on physical circumstances. But the act of sending a friend request is severely different—it’s a black-and-white response which communicates: “yes, you can have access to my online identity, and to the online identities of my other Facebook friends.”


Exploring the notion of an online identity is a slippery-slope topic in and of itself, but in retrospect of paragraph eleven, this identity is a creation of mine and of my friends, which is an extension of my perceived identity, and an extension of my identity in the perception of my friends. My Facebook profile is truly a composite-personality. The act of creating an online profile, a digital representation and extension of me, is a foundational norm. The act of granting permissions to all of my information presented on my Facebook profile is a foundational norm. Yes, I may be able to configure privacy permissions, but these privacy permissions should never be thought of as a guaranteed security measure. All that has to happen is for someone to look over the shoulder of one of your Facebook friends for that unidentified individual to be given access to your Facebook profile. Or if any one of your Facebook friends gives his or her password to someone you didn’t directly give access to, or if any one of your Facebook friends’ computer or phone with Facebook access with a stored password gets stolen. You cannot guarantee the privacy of your personal information. Is this an emerging norm?