Several months ago, I joined Facebook after being pestered by my close friends to do so. Some parts of Facebook I find stressful: I’m painfully aware of what I put on my “status” updates, always balancing the desire to share news with close friends with the desire to market myself to newer friends in particular ways. And, I confess, I am driven insane by certain statistical issues that Facebook reveals: how is it possible that nearly all of my friends know a certain “Melissa” who I had never heard of? But, on the whole, I enjoy rekindling connections with friends –- and enemies.
Enemies. Although I was an unpopular loner in middle- and high-school, I was surprised when former members of my schools’ “popular” crowds began to “friend” me shortly after my entrance to Facebook. Whereas in school I had no access to the privileged set of the “popular,” my new status as a Facebook friend provides me a window into the details of popular life that were once a privilege to possess. Even more surprisingly, I find myself feeling decidedly warm and friendly towards the very people I once struggled with. One explanation for my change of heart is, of course, that my classmates and I are now long past high school and, hopefully, far more mature. But a more interesting explanation is that social networking tools are slowly changing, for the better, the way we form our friendship groups.
As a teenager in the 1990’s, my school experiences were defined by the phenomenon of the clique. Students would form close-knit groups from which others were routinely excluded. Some of these groups carried far more weight than others. Membership in a popular clique granted privileged access to social knowledge and benefits. Truthfully, I found this system marked by close-friendships and heated clashes between groups utterly painful.
Social networking, however, places a premium on having large numbers of friends. Of course, there is always the risk that having too many friends makes you a “Facebook slut,” but 500-600 friends is far from uncommon amongst the current high-school students I know. Furthermore, one typically reveals the details of his or her personal life (from dating habits to music preferences) to all of these Facebook friends. Online, at least, the “popular” student has now a diffuse set of friends rather than a closed-clique, and his or her social preferences are publicly available. What does it mean to be popular in this context anyway?
Here is the question: are the structures for friendship that prevail on social networking sites –- structures that place premiums on including many people and revealing and accepting of a broad range of lifestyle preferences –- impacting the way both youth and adults form their real space friendships? Could social networking be making us less exclusive and more inclusive and kinder?