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Farhad Manjoo: What's the polite way to accept a friend request?
Emily Yoffe: 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: Farhad, today's question is from a listener who wonders about the etiquette of reconnecting on a social network. The listener writes, "Dear Emily and Farhad, what's the protocol once you accept a friend request from someone on Facebook? I'm thinking particularly about old high school friends, or old colleagues, or acquaintances who send a friend request without an accompanying message. Is it okay just to browse their info and pictures and then move on or should you exchange a wall post or message catching up?
I prefer not to send meaningless how-are-you e-mails, but when I see these people in my feed, it makes me feel a jolt of guilt, like I should have engaged them once I accepted. What's the polite thing to do?" Signed, a Natural Lurker.
Okay, Farhad, what should this listener do?
Farhad: I wonder if when Mark Zuckerberg was coming up with Facebook if he knew how much guilt he was imposing on the world. I think that she has no obligation to do anything. I think that's the point of Facebook. You see people, you see status updates about their lives and you can engage if you want. But I don't think you should feel guilt about not saying anything.
Emily: Miraculous! We agree. I think this technology doesn't change one's obligations radically. If you run into an old friend/classmate and you exchange e-mails, it is then not incumbent upon you to let them know what soup you had for lunch. It's just a different technology that allows you to stay in touch, but you incur no obligation.
I also don't understand—maybe you can enlighten me—this whole notion of lurking, as if there is something faintly malicious about looking online at people's Facebook pages without actually saying, "Yeah, I love this social network, too."
Farhad: I don't see what's sinister about it, especially when people put their stuff up there for everyone to look at. If they've allowed you to be friends with them, they are essentially opening the door for you to look at their stuff. I don't think people are expecting that you comment on everything they put up.
What I like about Facebook and other social networks is the way that you're naturally moved sometimes to comment on things. You see something great that your friend posted up—a picture of their baby or a picture of them lounging in Paris or something like that—and sometimes you want to just say that it looks fun, or then you just press the "like" button or something like that. I don't think you should feel obligated.
The fundamental problem about Facebook is everyone you know is labeled a friend on Facebook, even though they may not be friends. It may be your plumber, but he's called a friend if you've associated with him on the network. I think that causes a lot of confusion. In real life, we treat friends a certain way and we try to talk to them and stay in touch, but acquaintances—people from your old workplace—you may not have that same need to keep connecting with them.
But Facebook just labels them as friends, and there they are all the time.
Emily: I was talking to a young person about Facebook and she was saying, "Well, isn't the problem that some people aren't on it? In a perfect socially-networked world, we would all be on it so we'd all know what each other is doing."
That, to me, is the dystopia nightmare of Mark Zuckerberg's vision.
Farhad: Well, I bet he would agree with you that the problem with Facebook is that not everyone is on it.
Emily: Alright, Farhad. The bottom line is we agree. From my perspective, accepting a friend request implies that no further obligation beyond accepting—and that means not being required to say happy birthday, comment on a new haircut, or even a new baby.
Farhad: Except if it's my baby, right?
Emily: Well, the cutest baby in the world.
Farhad: Yes. I agree. I think when you're on Facebook, you're under no obligation to do anything. You could just be a sinister lurker, if you like, watch everyone's status updates and say nothing. I think that it would be a worse social network and a pretty awful place if everyone was commenting on everything people did, just to keep up appearances. So just ignore everyone.
Emily: Hear that, Mark Zuckerberg? Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is email@example.com.
Farhad: You can also join our new 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.