Are we really friends on Facebook?

I was thinking about this question when I read a post on Facebook:

More and more people are treating the ‘Add friend’ button on Facebook as the ‘Follow’ button on Twitter: they do not necessarily know you, neither do they really want to be your friends; they just want to know what is going on with you.

When someone tries to add you as friend, Facebook gives you information on the number of ‘common friends’ you two share. While that piece of information is being used by some people as an important determinant in accepting/rejecting friend requests, many simply do not care about this number and choose to accept the request right away. In fact, I have done a little experiment using my own Facebook account: I randomly typed in a name in the ‘search people’ section and sent friend requests to the first 20 people on the list whom I share no ‘common friends’ with (I apologize to those 20 guys puzzled by the friend request from this total stranger). To my surprise, 12 out of these 20 people accepted my friend request within a day; 4 more accepted my request within the next 2 days and the rest 4 did not respond. Nobody actually rejects me! Hooray!

I know my experiment design is not sophisticated enough to be foolproof, but at least it says something about our behavior online that could be different from what happens in the real world. People are curious about what is going on with others, even those they do not personally know. And if the cost of knowing others’ life is reduced to just one click on the ‘Add friend’ button, why not go ahead and do it? For those receiving the friend requests, they feel flattered (if not puzzled) if people are interested in his/her life. Few people actually click the ‘reject’ button because they do not want to disappoint the requester by being ‘rude’. They just choose to ignore the request which has similar effect as rejecting the request but saves face for both sides.

I am definitely not the first one to discover this, and there are many people online who are thinking about the same question as I do: how many ‘friends’ on Facebook are real and genuine friends of ours? One reply to that post above shows an answer to this question (and the person who replied happens to be my friend – on Facebook):

I am seriously considering un-friending my friends on Facebook one by one and then spend some time thinking about what this particular ‘friend’ means to me: if I can find a good reason, I will leave a sincere message to this friend and submit a friend request again; if not, then it does not hurt to un-friend this guy.

I am not sure whether he will add me again after un-friending me, but his idea absolutely intrigues me. At a time when everything is fast-paced and result-orientated, we really need some space to take a breath and reflect upon our definitions of basic ideas like ‘friends’. By randomly submitting and accepting friend requests, people are indeed more ‘connected’, but not in a way we actually want. We are blurring the boundary between ‘friends’ and ‘loosely connected strangers’. Maybe we really need to re-define our criteria for making friends online, though not necessarily in the way quoted above (unless you really have a lot of free time). Only with a clear set of criteria in mind can we really make more friends and strengthen our existing friendship on Facebook.

So you just added me as a friend on Facebook. But are we friends?

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