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.
Reihan Salam: Hello! My name is Reihan Salam, and I recently wrote a short piece on Facebook etiquette. I've been a great lover of social networking software for a few years now. Though I was never a big user of Internet Relay Chat, in the pre-Friendster era, I'd spent lots of time time at websites where people would construct "profiles" from Instant Messenger screen names and incredibly long lists of favorite bands. I started using Facebook soon after it started, in 2004, and I actively use Last.fm, Pownce, and del.icio.us and I'm always eager to check out new ones. I'm really looking forward to answering your questions.
New York: What sort of (albeit obviously generalized) conclusions can be intelligently drawn about people who are on Facebook vs. choosing not to be?
Reihan Salam: This is an excellent question, and a tough one to answer, particularly because there are now 40 million users (and climbing). So let's narrow it down and talk about kids in college, and particularly kids in college who live on campus. Because so many of your (real-world) friends are using Facebook, you are making a very self-conscious decision to stand apart from the crowd. Perhaps it's because you find Facebook to be a massive time-waster. (And incidentally, you'd be right!) Or, in some cases, you might be concerned about your privacy. That's part of why Facebook bends over backwards to provide a wide array of privacy features: you can protect your information as much as you want. In part, this was a play for parents—you can feel safe about your kids using it, etc.
When it comes to post-college adults, it's still a minority that chooses to sign up—a larger minority among twentysomethings, a dwindling share the further up you go. And in this group, I suspect you have a mix: early adopters and technology enthusiasts, people who want to be in on the cool new thing, and people who want to keep tabs on their fellow wired friends.
I have a lot of sympathy for those who choose to steer clear of Facebook. But for me, it's been a pretty useful and fun tool, and my guess is that it will get more useful rather than less. So you might say the goalposts are shifting: the people who choose not to be on Facebook *now* might choose to be on in the next few months. A lot of people joke about having their resistance worn down by the Facebook throngs.
Boonton, N.J.: I've been on Facebook for a month now but never recieved friend requests from strangers and don't understand how people have like 1,000 friends, 90 percent of them strangers. How is that?
Reihan Salam: Tell me about it! Once you get into four-digit territory, you are talking about some very, very sociable people.
Once again, I'd say this varies by age group. Among younger people, in high school and college, it is really common to "friend" people you barely know—say, we're in the same AP Chemistry class. Or, we live in the same dorm. Different people have different thresholds. Now, if you attend a big high school (mine had 3000 students) those numbers add up pretty quickly. The same goes for college.
My strong suspicion is that there is also an element of "competitive friending," i.e., an arms race over who can have the most friends. I think of this as more of a MySpace phenomenon, where one is encouraged to make friends with strangers, or to have a secret identity or nom de Myspace. Facebook *discourages* that sort of thing. The grand idea is that Facebook is a "social graph," a kind of map that represents who you know and interact with on a regular basis. When you think about it, this is a tremendously useful thing to have over time.
But, I mean, who interacts with 1,000 people in anything but the most fleeting way? Well, I'll bet Bill Clinton does, and there are probably a few others out there. I wouldn't think too much of it, though.
Waterbury, Conn.: You write for the Washington Post and you don't even know what a "corsair" is? I believe your article mentioned "a pirate wielding a corsair." A corsair is a Barbary pirate (or possibly one of his ships) ... so you basically said "a pirate wielding a pirate." What kind of a writer uses words they don't even know the definition of? How did you ever get to be a professional writer if you make these kinds of titanically stupid errors?
Reihan Salam: Oh, I know what a "corsair" is—and I *was* using it as a sleek, fast-moving ship. Granted, my use was a little unconventional: "a pirate wielding a sleek, fast-moving ship." But your point is well-taken.
"Titanically-stupid" seems a little strong, but I've been called worse. I will tell you why I *wanted* to become a writer—for longer than I can possibly say, I've wanted to interact with people like you in live chats. And now I can!
Vienna, Va.: As a person who finds Facebook creepy but sometimes useful, one way I've gotten around a lot of the problems you outlined in your article is by creating a "fake" profile under a pseudonym and simply friending all the people I want to be friends with. People have told me deleting my real account has made me dead to the world and that operating under this system is "not what Facebook is about." Am I a terrible person?
Reihan Salam: Hmm ... this is a tough one. Not whether or not you're a terrible person! How could you be—you have excellent taste in chats!
But it *is* true that Facebook is supposed to be about real names. I know the folks at Facebook would rather you didn't use a fake name. You could probably do just fine by, for example, adjusting your privacy settings so your name won't come up in a search.
That said, I certainly don't think this is the worst thing in the world. Yes, deleting your real account means you've lost a lot of information. But this raises a question—what if you leave Facebook for another network? One of the big problems with Facebook, in my view, is that they "own" a lot of this information about your friendships, and it can't be easily carried from one service to another. A lot of folks, like David Recordon at Six Apart and Brad Fitzpatrick at Google, are trying to solve this problem. But that's a whole other issue!
Reihan Salam is associate editor at the Atlantic and a writer in Washington.