The Facebook commandments.

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Sept. 25 2007 11:06 AM

The Facebook Commandments

How to deal with unwanted friend requests, the ethics of de-friending, and other social networking etiquette predicaments.

Reihan Salam was online on Sept. 27 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

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How do you decide whether it's OK to friend someone?

After all, it's always better to be the rejecter rather than the rejectee. I will now contradict myself: Friending strangers is permissible. If you are going to approach a stranger, don't do it out of the blue. Never, ever send a random friend request without undergoing some preliminaries, such as trading a few wry observations. The beauty of this "Facebook foreplay," to use an unfortunate analogy, is that you can always refuse to respond.

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Had I not sent just such a random missive many moons ago, I never would have met Reyhan Harmanci. This was way back in 2003, when Friendster was all the rage. I noticed that she was friends with about a dozen of my friends and that she was my homonym. For those of us with obscure, highly foreign, or otherwise odd names, this is no joke. I also sensed that we occupied similar spaces in the social pecking order: small, ethnic, and extremely lovable, not unlike pandas. Despite never having met in person, I felt compelled to drop her a line. After a few back-and-forth messages, we quickly formed the "Re_han Club" and became bosom friends. While I was writing the piece, Reyhan—no longer a stranger—sent me a Facebook friend request, which I enthusiastically accepted.

How long should you wait to send a friend request to someone you've just met?

Say you chat someone up at a dinner party. You have a brief but intense conversation about the mostly unseen Kevin Costner thriller Mr. Brooks that leads you to believe she'd be a good person to have in your cyber-circle. Perhaps you trade business cards or e-mail addresses. While you never quite make it to comparing tattoos, bobbing for apples, or other intimacies limited to close friendships, you sense that friendship could indeed blossom at some future date. Why not send a very meek and humble friend request?

Hey, this is _________. We met briefly at __________. This is a little presumptuous, but your awe-inspiring Sudoku skills compel me to ask: Do you think we can be cyber-friends?

This is a little like asking someone out on a first date, but way less threatening. The same logic applies: Send the message soon (within a day or two) after your initial meeting, so the object of your friend-crush has some idea who the heck you are. Keep in mind that your would-be friend has every right to ignore you. You were bending her ear about Mr. Brooks, after all.

What's the right number of Facebook friends?

It all depends on context. Noted anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that the mean clique—a group of primary social partners—consists of around 12 people. Average maximum network size—a group of real friends plus friends of friends—is around 150. I don't know about you, but most of my primary clique isn't on Facebook. My social graph and my social life overlap, but not nearly as much as they would if all of my close friends were on Facebook.

That's why college students find Facebook so addictive. An undergrad who doesn't have a Facebook profile is regarded as a Luddite, the social equivalent of leading a survivalist lifestyle complete with flintlock rifle and bandana. In this case, Facebook works as it should. Even if you have 700 friends, the site susses out your real bosom buddies—they post on your wall, they trade messages with you, and they pop up on your News Feed way more often.

While college kids can get away with huge numbers of friends, the geezers among us should be a little more selective. And by "geezers," I mean everyone born before Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. A group of 150 Facebook friends, right around Dunbar's maximum network size, will let you feel comfortable about broadcasting your status, whether it's "Reihan Salam is triumphantly pumping his fists" or "Reihan Salam is slowly dying of dengue fever."

Of course, even after the Great Facebook Purge of 2007 I still have 258 friends. In theory, a huge number of friends means you're really, really popular. In reality, the omnidirectionally friendly typically strike us as untrustworthy and maybe even a little lame. What can I say—I am a very friendly fellow. Adjust your privacy settings accordingly.

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.

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