Facebook dilemma: To friend or not to friend?

August 27, 2007, 7:31 PM UTC
Fortune

For August’s question, a desperate plea from a good thirtysomething friend who’s running into a somewhat twentysomething-induced situation:

“I’ve had this problem lately about what to do when someone who wants me to add them to my Facebook contacts and I don’t like them/respect them/want to be associated with them,” she writes. “I ignore their plea, but it could get awkward. I don’t really want to decline outright… Not as big of a deal on Facebook, which I don’t use anyway (okay, I don’t really use any social networking), but what about for LinkedIn, which is more of a professional network site. I don’t want to recommend or be linked to someone who might bring my whole professional reputation down a notch.”

I had to laugh when I received this because I’d been having the same issue recently myself and was starting to worry that I was either 1) an insufferable snob, or 2) not cut out for social networking. So I called on some people I thought might know how to solve our problem — namely, my 22-year-old sister, Lisa, and her recent-grad, extremely Facebook-savvy friends.

Evidently, our reader’s instinct — ignore, ignore, ignore — is right. According to my little Facebook focus group, the rule with most of these social networks is that a pending friend-request, even a prolonged one, can mean any number of things. True, it may mean that the other person just doesn’t like you and would rather chew gravel than be your “friend.” But it could also mean that he or she simply isn’t much of a social networker. Whereas, an outright denial leaves no such room for interpretation.

And while it might be awkward to run into someone who’s still “pending” on your friend list — Lisa, my own sister, actually called not long ago to ask why I hadn’t confirmed her as my Facebook friend yet — you can always say you just don’t really go in for the whole social networking thing. (In my case, it’s true; I didn’t even know Lisa was — horror of horrors — pending, but thankfully, she forgave me and a grave family crisis was averted.) Most normal people will get the hint, and if one or two pending people don’t and pester you about it, well, then at least you know you made the right call.

Because, as our reader rightly points out, befriending the wrong person — on Facebook, LinkedIn, or MySpace, as in life — can have dire consequences. Not only do you suffer when you open this sort of direct line of personal and semi-friendly communication with a — let’s just say it — wack person, but all your other friends suffer because you’ve made them even more vulnerable to friend requests and communiques from said person. And again, in social networking as in life, you often are who you hang with, virtually or otherwise. The point of these networks is, after all, to keep existing friendships and associations current and bring new ones — between people with shared personal or professional interests — together, not to force you to be friends with people you don’t like, respect, or want to be associated with. (Or for that matter, people who want to steal your identity, like this Sophos release points out.)

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a small something about those people many of us don’t want to be associated with. Often, I’ve found, it’s the people we don’t want to befriend in real life who — unable to overcome this condition — try to push for a friendship online. These are also usually the same people who, if the Facebook newsfeed is any indication, seem to have more vibrant lives there than most of us do in reality. This doesn’t make them bad people, just in many cases, people who haven’t been as socially successful as they might’ve liked, and have found in these social networks a chance to finally change that.

So help them (offline) if you can, and if you think you might be one of them, try putting some of the energy you spend Facebooking and whatnot into building some good, strong, face-to-face interpersonal relationships. We’re getting older, and while, as my brilliant colleague David Kirkpatrick says here and all the time, Facebook and its ilk can be wonderful tools, they’re just that, tools, not ways of serious adult life. So use them, don’t stress them. And no matter what kind of social networker you are, don’t bet they’ll be replacing old-fashioned people skills any time soon!

Thoughts? Feelings? Rants?