A "friend"ly misunderstanding

people and relationships, society

As I’ve blogged about in the past, I’ve recently become a member of several social/business networks online in an effort to expand my social circle, learn about new areas, see and be seen, and yeah, get a cool job.

One of the most useful aspects of these sites, especially Ryze, is the “friends” and “friends of friends” features. Specifically, you can delineate which fellow contacts online are your friends, and this designation is disclosed to others viewing your profile.

To better understand how this all works, let’s take the hypothetical networker Alan, who happens to be interested in learning about the work environment at Acme corporation. One day, via a “friends of friends” list on Ryze, he notes that his friend Betty is friends with Cara, a Program Manager at Acme!

Alan knows he has a conversational hook (besides just wanting info) with Cara. and — highly respecting Betty and anyone she’d choose as a friend — he also understandably assumes that Cara’s likely to be a a smart and helpful person rather than a intellectually-challenged jerk.

This example highlights two strongly rewarding aspects of ‘friend identification’ online:

– The opportunity to expand one’s network based upon trusted personal sources.
– The ability to enter into a conversation with a reasonably enhanced sense of respect and trust.

Unfortunately, the prolific (albeit likely unintentional) misuse of this Friends system has resulted in an almost complete devaluation of its worth.

* * *

Nowadays, people seem to be marking others as “friends” not as an indication of current status, but rather as either a compliment (“Hey you seem like a fun person!”) or an indication of wished status or result (hmm… maybe if I ‘friend’ him, he’ll look at my resume). In just the last few weeks, in fact, I’ve had a half-a-dozen folks link to my online profiles as a “friend” when in fact I’ve never spoken with them, much less ever met them in person. When I politely asked one of the linkers whether we had met earlier, she responded with seemingly a tinge of annoyance and desperation, “No, but did you get my e-mail about the charity benefit? I’m trying to spread the word as much as possible. Can you make it?”

* * *

I’m unclear as to whether behavior is due to a lack of fundamental understanding that a friend online should be measured by the same standards as a friend offline, or — perhaps more alarmingly — whether the whole concept of friendship has simply been subjected to the equivalent of grade inflation.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but at least in my networking and socializing, I make a clear distinction amongst friends, acquaintances, and people I’d simply like to get to know. I don’t consider someone a friend until we’ve gotten to know each other over the course of many hours together in a social context and have enjoyed each others’ company.

A friend is not just someone you like and admire, IMHO. The key here is the mutuality of give and take and interest.

* * *

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how this problem can be solved. Greater education of online networkers would be a good place to start, however, perhaps with a text something like this:


Please refrain from linking to others as friends unless you do indeed already enjoy a substantial friendship with each other. Ask yourself: Would I happily go on a weekend camping trip with this person? Would I feel comfortable having this person babysit one of my kids?

Additionally, please do not feel compelled to link back to someone as a friend simply because they linked to you. Peer pressure is a bad thing with regards to smoking, dating, cliff diving, and yes, online networking.

Remember that by being true to yourself and others online, you’ll be improving the network and its effectiveness for you and the tens of thousands of others who rely upon ‘friend’ declarations in their placement of trust.

Thanks for your understanding and cooperation.

* * *

What do you think about all of this? Am I overreacting? Or is this indeed a real problem in need of tackling?

3 comments… add one
  • Debbie Jul 23, 2003

    Since I am new to Ryze this has given me something to think about.  thank you for writing the article.

    Debbie

  • Warren Apr 11, 2004

    I think you are slightly overreacting but that is only my opinion as it relates to the scope. I don’t believe we should accept everyone who asks as a friend but I also think the criteria you suggest is a little stringent. As long as they seem to be genuine after looking over their home page and have asked I tend to be more liberal than you suggest. I may private message some back and ask why but if they respond with anything reasonable I accept them. I don’t slam the door in someones face offline either.

  • edgar May 1, 2006

    i think you just like hearing yourself talk and act like you are actually educated on some subject, go back to rhetoric 101 and find something of value to write about. People are always fake, always have been, physical friends are just as fickle as any online friend may be

What do you think?