Is the "Friend" of My Internet Social Utility My "Friend"?

Everyone who populates Facebook eventually faces the same dilemma: whether to accept or ignore a friend request. I very regularly have conversations with my Facebook friends who are also my "Loud Time" friends or my "publishing industry" friends or my "family" friends about this dilemma. Because we all eventually face it, we all have what you might call "provisional policies" regarding Facebook friendship.

The thing is, we don't necessarily have fully formed or fully articulated provisional policies, and so our inevitable forced decision creates an inevitable anxiety--every time. I've recently watched two friends cringe as they've hovered their cursor nervously over the "Ignore" button, wanting to dispense with a potential "friend" they've never even met but feeling queasy about it. Agnieszka Tennant wrote a very insightful piece about the experience for Christianity Today last fall.

But Agnieszka's article didn't solve the problem for everybody, at least in part because everybody processes the word friend differently. The word carries a peculiar weight for each of us, and so when someone out of the blue wants to drop that weight on us--whether or not that's what they're really asking or offering--we each face the uncomfortable dilemma of deciding whether to invite that extra burden on ourselves.

I don't generally cringe the way many of my friends cringe when they entertain an unwanted Facebook advance, and I suppose it's time I explored why. The main reason, I think, is that when I entered into Facebook I perceived that I was entering into a new social realm, and as such I'd be meeting people there that I haven't met and might never meet elsewhere. Facebook is a place I reside, so to speak, and so I might as well get to know my neighbors.

When I first started blogging, one of my earliest posts had to do with "accidental friendships"--the relationships we find ourselves thrust into. That post more than many has reasserted itself in my memory over the years as I've entered into new social realms--a new neighborhood, a new church, new voluntary organizations and, yes, even Facebook. It strikes me again and again that, for example, when I applied for, interviewed for, begged for and eventually accepted the invitation to join the company I work for, I was consequently signing away my right to determine which of my coworkers I would talk to. I couldn't determine that I would open my door to folks in the editorial department but leave it closed to folks in the business department. I couldn't greet people my age and snub people the age of my parents. I couldn't even avoid interactions with people I suspected were just trying to use me or people I found personally unpleasant. Part of signing on to my job meant signing on to the people who I would be working with. Eleven years later I'm closer to some than others, but I'd happily count them all among my "friends."

I'm reminded of the story of Adam and Eve, who set the bar for how human beings meaningfully relate to each other since they were the only human beings they knew. We most often read the introduction of Adam to Eve romantically:

Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,
"This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called 'woman, '
for she was taken out of man."

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

I think it's fair to read that passage through the filter of romance. This is, after all, the first marriage, and Jesus himself uses it in his teaching to sanctify marriage as a uniquely special relationship. But I often wonder how much of Adam's effusion can be attributed not to his visceral reaction to the perfectly naked woman in front of him but to the realization that his loneliness has come to an end. It's the notion that "it is not good for the man to be alone," after all, that led to his introduction to Eve. Eve was, in a sense, the Edenic equivalent of a Facebook "friend request": and Adam could hardly ignore her.

So I tend to think of friend requests through Facebook not as requests per se, more as invitations. Friendship is the coin of the realm of a social utility, after all, and there's a sense in which I need all the friends I can get.

I recognize, of course, that there are likely fundamental flaws and enormous gaps in how I've approached this question, and I'm not trying to convince anyone that (a) their approach to Facebook friend requests is wrong or (b) my approach to Facebook friend requests is better. I'm really just trying to more fully articulate my own provisional policy, and in a larger sense, I suppose, to explore the dynamics of virtual friendship. So I invite your comments, critical or otherwise.


Rick said…
Brilliantly and concisely laid out. I would only add that in my workplace and in my Facebook experience, and I'll add Twitter as the other one that I've added pretty fully - I'll dump a "friend" as soon as I find out there's more spam there than anything else. That's right, even at work, I won't put up with spam.
LA Nickers said…
Excellent questions here.

I have often wondered:

What would happen to Facebook friendships, if folks were to meet face-to-face?

And would we recognize acquaintances from places like MySpace?

Thanks. I may have to rhyme something on this topic now. ;-)

Anonymous said…
I've toyed around with making friends in myspace but it often seems disposable and circumstantial.

To me, making friends online is like having a bus/train/retail friend. You know, the person you see on the bus or train or store every day so you speak to them and greet them. You may even have some nice, short conversations with them.

However, if you were to bump into them out of that environment...would there be a "friendship"? Other than the environment do you really have anything in common?
Al Hsu said…
Andy Crouch has said that he tries to limit Facebook friending to people he has met in a physical, embodied way, or at least worked with and interacted personally with. I've pretty much followed his cue. I'll friend some authors that I've not met in person but have worked with via e-mail and phone, but then again, I might not friend someone I've met in passing at a conference.

I probably agonize most over people I vaguely know but are more at the level of acquaintance than friend. Or people I don't know at all but whose names I recognize - I wonder if it might be advantageous to me somehow to friend them. But then friendship becomes a utilitarian notion. I'd rather that Facebook friending mostly correspond with an ontological reality that already exists in the real world.
Jennwith2ns said…
I'll friend people I've "met" in some other context, but I'm a little more open on my blog because it seems like you can know a bit more about somebody--and you can also ignore them if necessary, without hitting an "ignore" button.

But I think you can be friends in person with people you met first on-line. This friendship (and all my other IVP ones) being an example. ;)
Anonymous said…
My solution?
I haven't started a Facebook account. Heaven knows what would happen if I did. Between blogging and now zimbio and squidoo (which I've dreadfully ignored as of late), I've been a little too Internet-crazed. For the sake of my eyes, I've set a boundary.
L.L. Barkat said…
I like the idea that it's an advance. But I guess I look for an advance to the advance. Some kind of contact through a blog or forum, where the person first bothers to speak to me as another person. Maybe they should have little subcategories: friend-in-waiting, friend, soulmate. You know?

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