Blog Post

Are You My Friend?

I am both intrigued and bothered by the friendly language of social networking. Where are the boundaries? I'm sorry, not every person one comes in contact with in the course of everyday life is a "friend." The term has always bugged me, partly from those telephone services that play on the notions of friendship and loneliness to sell you subscription plans. The hucksterism and sentimentality of "friends" go hand in hand. Partly it is from the intrusive language of spam and porn. Just this morning, in my inbox, comes a message from someone named Christina (I'm sure she's a perfectly nice girl) who pleads, "Can we be friends?" and sends me her very own personal email address from which I will be able to see her "pics." Oh, yeah. Like I'm going to do that. And then we'll be bffs (Best Friends Forever, for those of you who don't text).

I'm sure my aversion to the language of "friends" is also a matter of age. When you are thirteen, friends probably matter as much or more than just about anything else. If you're not a teenager, if you lead a busy and engaged life, collecting more and more and more "friends" (scare quotes intended) does not seem like fun, it seems more like an occupational hazard (i.e. one year, after teaching a larger and popular class of seniors, directing too many dissertations, serving as an officer of a professional association and editor of a journal in the field, I ended up writing wrote well over one hundred letters of recommendation and could have written probably three, four, or five times that many if I'd said "yes" to everyone; all of these were people whom Facebook would call "friends"--students, former students, colleagues, former colleagues, co-panelists at some conference I barely remembered, etc: by the time I reached my one hundredth letter, I vowed to become a hermit. If I had been asked to answer the "yes" or "no" Facebook Friends question, I would not have been inclined to say yes.). In fact, those kinds of [scarequote] "friends" often occupy so much of one's life that there isn't much time left over for the real intimacies of real BFFs. It's one of the ironies of adult sociability. But when I was thirteen would I have been happier with the "friends" label. Hey, it was a popular tv show that went on forever, right? Why am I so nervous about the internet version of friendship? Everyone needs friends, loves friends . . . even FACEBOOK friends. Actually, I don't think so. I don't like the semantics. There has to be a difference between LinkedIn's "contacts" and that annoying Facebook question, "Are you a friend?"

For an excellent discussion of this issue (as well as important thoughts on privacy and futurity---even friends grow up!) check out this long and thoughtful analysis by Professor Ian Bogost, one of my favorite theorists and practitioners (he's also a game designer) of our moment. I've reblogged the first part of it here to give you the flavor but his posting is long and extremely thoughtful and I urge you to read it all. It's worth it!


A Professor's Impressions of Facebook
Musings after several months of use, as I prepare to start the semester
August 19, 2007

This spring, I created an account on Facebook.I'm a web 2.0 cynic (and a cynic in general), so this surprised some ofmy friends and colleagues. But I was encouraged by so many of them, Iwanted to give it a try. For example, Ian McCarthy just wanted an easier way to share pictures with me without having to pester me to go look. BJ Fogg told me that he was thinking about how to use Facebook for teaching (here's the Facebook group on the topic), and encouraged me to get on because my students use Facebook and like it.

So, I've been trying to use Facebook earnestly for the past fewmonths to get a sense of how it works and what I might use it for. Iknow that there is a lot of mounting interest in Facebook and socialnetworking software in general among university professors andadministrators. I spoke at the Georgia Tech President's Retreat lastweek, and Facebook was a part of more than one of the presentations.Some just want to understand how college-age students use technology.Some want to harness it for their own purposes. I didn't have anypreconceived goals for exploiting the service. I tried to keep an openmind and to use the service as naturally as possible -- in my case,primarily as a university professor. Here are some of my reactions sofar.

Go to Ian Bogost's blog for the rest of this fascinating and important posting . . .




1 comment

Great post from Ian! I'm going to comment directly on his blog, but I wanted to say a couple of things here:

As a member of Facebook since its infancy, I've noticed that many users don't think much of the term "friend" there. Indeed, some will add anyone they have ever met or even heard of simply to make that "friend" count as high as possible.

I've always found it a bit awkward when someone I barely know sends me a Facebook friend request; it feels strange to turn it down, but it's even stranger when you accept and then encounter that person in real life and they don't even recognize you! Not much authority given to the term "friend" in those situations!