What Are Friends For?
Reihan Salam takes readers' questions about Facebook etiquette and managing your buddies.
Slate contributor Reihan Salam was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Sept. 27, to discuss Facebook etiquette and the social-networking phenomenon. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Vienna, Va.: In response to the relationship issue on Facebook, my girlfriend put "engaged" as a joke when they first made that an option. It's alarming how seriously people take it. People take what's written on profiles extremely seriously, which I guess is the point of the whole "real names" thing. But whatever.
Reihan Salam: Yeah, people can be a little kooky. This is a pretty irony-steeped generation—most of my supposedly "married" or "engaged" Facebook friends are in fact joking around. But I'll bet this is far less common in other groups.
Washington: Has Facebook killed MySpace? I think the layout is far superior, and MySpace seems to be just completely overwhelmed with spam.
Reihan Salam: Well, MySpace is run by very smart people—my guess is that they are adapting in response to the Facebook threat, and that we'll soon see some very impressive stuff. Remember that this is their livelihood, and that you don't build a network that popular by being a dunderhead.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Salam. I wanted to say, I joined Facebook the day after I graduated in 2006. I didn't want to spend my parent's money wasting time on Facebook. Now I barely use it, but it's good to keep in touch. I will, however, continue to prefer a well-intentioned phone call to a Facebook message/wall post.
Reihan Salam: You and me both, Arlington, VA.
Melbourne, Fla.: I find the example you used to show how to reject friend requests just felt wrong. I'm a Christian, not Muslim—but I never would speak so flippantly about one of G-ds commands. I do respect that Christians are told not to be friends with "the world," and Muslim faith I think commands the same, but "sorry, man Allah commands it" seems like you're using G-d as an 'excuse' ... would you really want someone to say something like that if they weren't Muslim? Wouldn't that show enormous disrespect for your G-d? Not to mention should a Muslim say it! Please, can you consider this? Thank you.
Reihan Salam: I meant that as a light-hearted joke, and I truly didn't intend to offend you or anyone else. This is a real issue: I've written a number of short pieces that aim to make light-hearted fun, but of course the things *I* find funny are sometimes things other people take very seriously. I guess this is a risk you take whenever you send something out into the world.
I do think it's important that we assume good faith on the part of other people: do you really think Paul Krugman or David Brooks mean to hurt or offend people, or do you think they're expressing their honest views about the world? Did Don Rickles want to make people feel horrible about themselves?
Washington: I work here at The Post—great article. I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of MySpace in your article even though they dwarf Facebook with more than 200 million users, and also no mention of the fact that Facebook only very recently allowed users without a .edu e-mail address to join. While the debate among us regarding social networking superiority between the sites rages on, at 25, my immediate social group of 15-25 people is all on MySpace. Los Angeles is totally right—as soon as I became "official" with my girlfriend (who is on Facebook and not MySpace, thank god), my friends' first question was "did you switch your status on MySpace?" As twentysomethings, are we just lame? Thanks.
Reihan Salam: Not at all! But I do think you notice some broad patterns—I am in my late twenties, and I think I was part of the Friendster generation. MySpace didn't even enter the picture until I wanted to listen to some obscure bands. And then I joined Facebook because my best friend, who went to my college (and graduated a couple of years later), signed up and told me to do the same. I would seriously consider following her off a cliff.
So I have a ton of friends who used Friendster (these accounts are now mostly dormant) and haven't yet made the switch. In fact, people who poked fun at me for joining Facebook three years ago are now signing up in droves.
I do think the issues surrounding MySpace are pretty different from Facebook, so that would've taken the piece further afield.
Boston: Have you heard of the theory that MySpace tracks to kids from lower socioeconomic classes and/or "outsiders," and Facebook tracks toward more conventional, upper-class kids? Any thoughts?
washingtonpost.com: MySpace v. Facebook: The Class Divide(nytimes.com, June 27)
Reihan Salam: I have, and I think this is the kind of thing that will change over time: MySpace has been around longer, so you have early-adopters and late-adopters. Facebook's demographic is changing too: first it was the preserve of kids who attended residential colleges and universities, already a relatively highbrow slice of the population. Soon, that'll (probably) no longer be the case.
Though it is possible that aesthetic/design differences between the sites will lead to a more persistent difference.
I will say that I'm a little skeptical about the idea that this snapshot (a temporary class difference in this case) is a serious problem: the digital divide between different ethnic groups in the US has by some measures closed (the overwhelming majority of US homes have a computer now, and a huge and growing number have Internet access), but whites and Asians are more likely to have multiple computers than other groups. This is mostly a class divide. And this divide will also close over time.
Reihan Salam is associate editor at the Atlantic and a writer in Washington.