A while back, some guy sent me a friend request on Facebook. We had one mutual friend, and that friend wasn’t someone I’m super close with, so I didn’t accept his request. This past weekend, purely by chance, I navigated to the part of the Messenger app where messages from people you’re not friends with go. There I discovered two messages, one from February 26th, and one from the previous Friday. These messages can be seen in the following screenshot, humorously annotated in the style of the doge meme:
The 26 Feb message was nondescript enough, but it was the follow-up where things got interesting. Apparently, this gentleman was greatly offended that I did not accept his friend request, and felt the need to convey his sentiments to me in no uncertain terms. But this got me thinking about the whole friending culture of Facebook.
I know that I am in the minority in that I only accept friend requests from people I know personally, or who I know of professionally. Many people accept friend requests from near all and sundry, with friends lists numbering in the hundreds or even thousands. There is an excellent YA book called Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman that explores the danger in accepting friend requests from people you don’t know (as well as themes such as cyberbullying and mental illness) that I highly recommend. In this story, Lara, a mentally ill teenager, gets into a relationship over Facebook with a guy from another high school who eventually dumps her and posts hurtful comments on her public Facebook wall, which causes her to attempt suicide. (The story is actually more complicated than that, but to say anything more would include spoilers, so…) Although this story is fictional, suicide attempts caused by social media are all too common, and cultivating a network of friends whom you do not really know can certainly contribute to this. For example, if the gentleman whose request I did not accept was so offended by my so doing that he felt compelled to go out of his way to say “F*ck you”, imagine what his response might be if I posted something on Facebook that he didn’t agree with (assuming I had accepted his friend request). I know nothing about this guy except that he is Facebook friends with one other person who I sort of know; I don’t know what to expect from interactions with him over social media. The potential fallout from those interactions could be significant.
And yet people accept friend requests from people they don’t know all the time, seemingly without a thought for the possible consequences, and those of us who do spare a thought for those concerns are written off as paranoid. How did this culture come to be? Is it a status symbol, to have so many Facebook friends, even if you do not know them? Or is there a fear of offending people that prompts people to accept requests from people they don’t know? Or is it just that people look at these requests and give a mental shrug and think no harm done by accepting their request, because the Web has become so open?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I’m sure there have been studies that have tried to answer them. It is an interesting state of affairs.