Digital Manners: Facebook Work Friends vs. Real Friends

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Nov. 15 2011 3:58 PM

Sorry, You Can’t Be My Facebook Friend (Transcript)

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe debate the question: Is there any good way to tell colleagues that you have a no-Facebook-friends policy at work?

Farhad Majoo:  You’re my coworker, not my friend!

Emily Yoffe:  Oh, thanks, Farhad! I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad:   I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Emily:  Today's question is from a listener who worries that her decision to draw a line between work friends and real friends makes her seem like a crank. Her name is Rachel, and she's actually in the studio with us today, so neither Farhad nor I have to read her letter. Rachel can tell us exactly what her problem is.

Rachel:  My question is that I have recently started a new job that requires me to manage our organization's fan page on Facebook, and a co-worker told me that I had to friend her so she could pass off the controls to me.

I, at that point, then gave her my very well-rehearsed speech about how I just don't friend co-workers, although I'm happy to friend them after we don't work at the same company.

This rule is born out of my caution, but it's also from the fact that I've really never figured out how to use Facebook's incredibly complicated privacy controls to limit what some friends see.

I just kind of think that I'm coming off really rude when I give this speech, because she just looked at me like I was paranoid. So my question is: what's a better speech I can give the next time that this comes up so I just don't seem like a snob?

Emily:  Can you clarify a little more about what's going on here? Have you been burned in the past, or you have a very freewheeling personal Facebook page that there's content on it that 's just private or could be damaging to you if it spills out into the workplace?

Rachel:  I'm a really cautious Facebook friender. I keep less than a hundred friends, and I often actually de-friend people if they drift out of my life.

There was a situation that I learned of at one point where a woman that I knew worked at a company that did not allow any Internet during work hours, and she was Facebook friends with people that she worked with.

She had started posting things on her Facebook page things like “I hate my job,” and “I can't come in” and “I'm just so miserable,” and somebody who was her Facebook friend leaked that to HR and it got back to her boss. I've just felt since then that it is not work the risk to my job in terms of how well I like or may trust my Facebook friends.

Farhad:  Is Facebook a big part of your job, managing the Facebook page? If that's the case, I guess I feel like I don't know why Facebook's privacy controls are beyond your ability.

Rachel:  I do work in the field of communications, so I am managing various forms of social media, and I regularly manage different organizations’ fan pages. But I have never thought that it is necessary for me to use my personal Facebook account to promote any organization that I work for.

There are various other social media forms, such as Twitter, where I think that it is appropriate and I choose to do that. But Facebook, I'm locking down to my personal self.

Emily:  Well, I think this underlines the point I've made on this podcast several times, which is even an expert cannot figure out Facebook privacy controls. It obviously is not in Mark Zuckerberg's interest for his privacy controls to be very easy. I think they're being changed all the time.

Farhad, I have gotten you to agree if you think anything on Facebook is private, you're ridiculous. Even though there are ways you can segregate people, I do understand your overall concern about it, Rachel.

Farhad:  I guess my response to Rachel is that I understand your caution, and I think it's appropriate because of the scenario you cited and because of various other ways that Facebook can kind of interfere with your career or hurt your image in front of your colleagues. Being cautious about it seems fine.

But in this case, I think that your policy was actually interfering with your job. It seems like you are required to manage the Facebook page, and part of that – just on a technical level – is just to become friends with somebody else.

I think that probably you should have made an allowance in your policy for that specific reason. So I can understand your co-workers surprise at your speech about being cautious.

Rachel:  I actually made a brief allowance. She friended me and passed off the controls and then I immediately un-friended her.

Subsequently, we did sort of figure out how a fan page administrator can pass off administration controls to somebody they are not friends with. I just find these controls very difficult to use, which is why I actually use Google+, because of its clarity in terms of when you are accepting somebody's friendship. So in this case I did relax it.

But I've had other situations where I have started a job and become friendly with a co-worker, and she told me, "Oh, I friended you on Facebook," and I maybe do want to be friends with her in real life; I just don't want to break this rule.

I just feel like my rule is good for me; I just need to figure out how to politely explain it to people.

Emily:  I have two reactions. One, I agree with Farhad. This comes under your work responsibilities. So in fact, it's incumbent upon you to keep up, as best as anyone can, with Facebook privacy settings, the various technical aspects. Because people at your workplace are going to be coming to you, which is “Hey, can you help me? I want to get this person off here.”

That's just part of your job duties and you should know that. I think you should consider your Facebook page a lost cause. Actually, since you do already have Google+ and like it, make that your default personal page.

Consider your Facebook page a semi-public, work-related page and tell your friends who are on there already, “Hey, come over to my Google+. Tthat's where I'm going to show pictures of me naked and drunk over the weekends,” and they'll go over.

Farhad:  I agree with that. And I actually think that the way you should be cautious is not in who you friend on Facebook, but in what you post of Facebook. And despite Google+’s better privacy controls, I think that you should use better caution there in that if you go by the rule that, everything you post on either of these sites on or anywhere else on the Internet can become public very easily, then you should just be cautious in whatever you post.

Emily:  Okay. No drunken, naked pictures. I take that back.

Farhad:  Yeah, not anywhere. You work in communications, so I imagine that part of your job is to create a public image for the company, and I think that if you work in one of those positions – like Emily and I are journalists, and I don't even think that I have personal profiles on all of these sites, because they morph into professional profile and that's kind of how I regard them. I think that maybe if you work in that kind of public role for a company, you kind of have to let your Internet profile become a part of your professional life.

Rachel:  I'm really trying to hold on to one last gasp of something private and personal.

Farhad:   There's always e-mail.

Emily:  Rachel, I think you’ve got to dump your speech. Because your job is in communication, you don't want to come off as leaving people feeling you're a little weird about communication. So, improving the speech is not going to make it better.

Farhad:   I agree with that. I think there's no good speech you can give in that situation.

Emily: And become an expert in Facebook.

Rachel:  Well, thank you, Emily and Farhad. I appreciate that.

Emily:  Thanks for coming in.

Farhad:   Yeah, thank you.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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