Facebook frenemies: is social networking making us kinder?

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?


  1. No, there’s nothing really meaningful about having a ton of friends on facebook. You only actually interact with the ones you choose to interact with. The rest just dangle there like charms on a bracelet and are mostly ignored.

  2. I certainly see your point with this post. I currently have some “Friends” now on Facebook that I never had in high school. There is one girl in particular that I seem to hit it off with pretty well on Facebook, but I don’t remember speaking a single word to in highschool. Certainly there are some changes in dynamics. Maybe the fact that the interactions online are more impersonal than face to face ones. I am strongly of the opinion that time heals all wounds as well. People do mature. I went to my 10 year reunion about 4 years ago, and I had one outright apology for how he treated me, and one implied apology. I think because it would have been weird at the particular time he chose to talk to me.

    Anyway, the one part of facebook that I don’t like is the pressure to add friends that I don’t really want to add. Mostly some in-laws or friends of the family. That and some of my wife’s friends that i’d rather not have see my stuff.

  3. There are now lists so that you can select what each friend sees. This might help solve your problems.

  4. #1 – Many of my friends I don’t interact with. But I still read their pages. And, I actually find that reading about their lives makes me feel kinder to people than I might otherwise be. So, even though they are more or less passively there, it still changes how I view them. And their presence makes me think about how I style myself on-line.

  5. Very interesting question. I don’t think Facebook makes anyone kinder. It raises some novel boundary issues, though. When you mix together current friends, people from the past, colleagues, and friends-of-friends and relatives….it gets a little weird. I’ve had people who work for me request me as a Facebook friend, which poses a dilemma. I don’t have any huge secrets at this point in my life, but it doesn’t mean I want to share everything with everyone. For example, I don’t want everyone I work with to know my every political view.

    I’m just a charm on your bracelet, MCQ? Sniff.

  6. while there is certainly a change in dynamics from high school, i think most of the people who request non-friends from that long ago do so out of curiosity. facebook has turned into the ultimate way to snoop on others, but only if you gain their permission.

    i’m with mike. it gets weird when people from each facet of my life (high school, college, various former wards, extended family, husband’s coworkers, et cetera) all meet together in one place. but it’s fun when margaret shows up on “people you may know!”

  7. How to Friend Mom, Dad, and the Boss on Facebook … Safely (Read Write Web)

    Sharing Selectively on Social Networking Sites (NY Times)

    (although I have yet to actually implement any of the suggestions — I’d rather just be careful about what I post)

  8. I don’t know if it’s making us kinder, but it’s certainly making me better at word scrambles! :)

    I think you may be on to something. The medium opens up information about people I just knew from saying hi. Who knew that a law school classmate (perfectly nice person, nod-and-hi in the hallways was about the extent of our interaction) had a half dozen ornate tattoos and was an animal lover? Or that another classmate was a total sci-fi geek? Facebook may not be particularly deep interaction — but it’s a lot deeper than the cocktail-party sort of chat that was the extent of my prior interaction with lots of classmates.

    (On the flip side, facebook interaction is limited in important ways. There was a really good NYT article on this a few months ago — that facebook doesn’t create best friends, but it helps maintain and reinforce the casual low-level relationships that would otherwise wither and fade.)

    p.s. Friend me, silly chicken.

    p.p.s. You too, makakona. And Ian.

    p.p.p.s. Mike, you are more than a bracelet charm, buddy. You’re definitely one of my friends whose status I read. Also, none of my other friends ever had a smart car for their profile picture. :)

  9. p.p.p.p.s. I’m not sure which Melissa you mean, but all of the Melissa’s on my own friend list (4 of them) are ultra cool — you wouldn’t go wrong friending any or all of them.

  10. #5 – When I was teaching, I would often have students want to Facebook me. Perhaps one thing that social networking is doing is creating expectations of greater openness in relationships that are traditionally hierarchical. I actually prefer working relationships to be more like friendships, but I know other people who feel very differently.

    #8 – One area where social networking is changing my behavior: if someone casually friends me and then I see that we share interests, I am far more likely to try to develop that friendship in real life. Before, I might have just missed an opportunity.

  11. I’m friending all of you to add more charms to my bracelet.

  12. Mrs. Peacock says:

    Frankly, I’m GLAD that a lot of people from my past have not friended me on Facebook. Why would I want people who were cruel to me in the past to have any part of my life now? I waited my whole life to grow up so I could leave that junk behind! I’m done with worrying about who likes me.

  13. It might be making us less exclusive. It also might be giving us new ways to be mean.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m brand new to Facebook, so I don’t have any answers, but I’m finding the discussion interesting.

  15. Carrie LC says:

    Facebook among Mormons is more like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s interesting to see how one of your facebook friends from one area of your life is facebook friends with another. For example, I have two facebook friends, one named Genny who I grew up with in Phoenix, and one named Rachael who is Navajo and who I met in Tucson when I was doing my undergraduate. Rachael saw that I had ‘facebook friended’ Genny and asked “How do you know my cousin Genny?”. I had no clue they were cousins! It’s a small church after all…

  16. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Back in 6th grade, it was those charm bracelets that determined the cliques.

    Full circle.

  17. It is making me more inclusive, although I have made use of the “Remove From Friends” button a couple of times when I found I had swung a little too broadly for new FB friends. In general, though, FB has allowed me to casually and (almost) naturally break down awkward silences that were reaching a decade in length.

  18. This is fascinating. I just started on Facebook and maybe this discussion will help me to figure out what I am doing.

  19. People seem pretty kind, but then they’re all friends, so I’m not sure they are kind just because they are on a social networking site. They’ve been kind since I met them.

    The collision of worlds is disconcerting. There’s a fun little application, Friend Wheel, that shows who knows who among your friends. I love being able to interact very casually with old friends, my big kids, and their friends.

    That word scramble is cutting into my blogging time though. Frankly, I’m astounded at some of the scores a few of my friends have achieved. But then it’s spelling, not my four-tay. I like pathwords better.

  20. re: 8
    That actually IS my new car. I’ve been driving it around L.A. for almost a month now. It’s so much fun. Anyone reading this is invited to a tour of Hollywood in my Prius-beating-liberal-loving Smart. Seriously!

  21. Mike, that is a glorious car.

  22. Mike!!! How can you even ask that? You are one of the people I actually talk to on Facebook and comment on their stuff and you know it. Steve and Kaimi, for example, are more like dangling charms.

  23. BTW, have you seen the episode of The IT Crowd that parodies facebook?

  24. I wish Facebook *were* making us all kinder. I do like facebook for the way it enhances my ability to collect data and information. That sounds stalkerish but I only half mean it in a stalkerish way. I can easily check out someone’s page and go, “Oh, they are interested in these activities…they’ve been talking to these guys on their walls,” etc.,

  25. I actually have a kind of sick fascination with watching how the various parts of my life collide on Facebook. I recently posted a news article about Obama’s stimulus package, and in the ensuing comments there arose a bizarre argument between a girl I barely knew in marching band in high school, a noted visual artist in New York City, and a linguistics doctoral student in southern California. I dropped out fairly early on, but the argument still continued among the three of them for dozens of comments, and got rather heated, actually. It was sort of hilarious.

  26. The only problem is when Steve Evans makes obscene jokes on your wall in an attempt to get you fired from BYU.

  27. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 22
    LOL, I was only joking in my first comment MCQ. Comparing Facebook friends to a dangling charms on a bracelet was hilarious.

    re: 25
    OK, here’s a bizarre confession: Sometimes I worry that my various Facebook friends are going to communicate about me behind my back. I should probably go back into therapy.

  28. StillConfused says:

    I am on facebook. Just came here from there in fact. my family is spread all over the nation so it helps us stay in contact in a low impact way. I have clients on there too. But the lastest thing that I discovered was the high school connection. I had cancer my senior year of highschool so I never finished it and moved across country. It is really neat to see where everyone is now after all of those years (class of 85). I even reconnected with the only other Mormon in my class (he isn’t Mormon anymore, rough times back then).

    I never really had any enemies. But we all are facebook friends now. It is fun to dredge up the old memories.

  29. No, Mike you just need to join our facebook group: “Friends of Mike Who Like to Gossip about Him and His Annoying Choice of Vehicle.” Then we won’t be talking behind your back anymore.

  30. I would be very proud to have all of you dangling from my bracelet. I would look so much smarter than I really am.

  31. I think that social interaction will never be the same due to social networking sites. I’m now in contact with friends from elementary school. I have old mission companions, and even my mission president. So far, it’s been a positive experience for me. I even joined the lds blogs group. :-)

  32. Hey, Carrie, I’m pretty sure I’m friends with Rachael. More grist for your mill.

  33. SingleintheCity says:

    I’m friends with Rachael too…small world, great girl!

  34. Ha ha ha. So am I friends with you, SITC?

  35. StillConfused says:

    Is there a facebook page for BCC? FMH has one. It is neat to put faces with the names. Though that may be scary too.

  36. I have chosen to reject the Facebook crowd entirely, even though I get emails about once a week encouraging me to join and become someone’s Facebook friend.

    Why do I reject it? Because I think it actually reduces intimacy, and makes us all just a part of a giant crowd, a number, if you will.

    I also think it helps to accomplish the prophecy that in the last days, the sins of the people will be shouted from the rooftops. While some use Facebook for good reasons, I think the majority of users are encouraged to plaster their private lives on the Web for all to see. It becomes a place for the least common denominator (which is why there are terms as Facebook slut).

    Even blogs and email can be very impersonal, however they do not necessarily show my every day life for most to see….

  37. i think facebook has encouraged more intimate relationships for me, especially being a former military family. it’s hard to stay in touch when all of your friends move half a world away (or when you do) and contact easily dwindles to christmas cards. with facebook, if said friends are so inclined to post status updates, i know what they’re up to on a much more regular basis. it’s frequently mundane, but that’s what makes it feel more intimate.

  38. And it turns out that putting names with faces is only scary for some of us. Check the BCC page, you’ll see. Kristine is a babe (was there any doubt?). Ronan is the one with even less hair than me. John H. looks like a nice academic and John F. looks like a lawyer. JNS looks avant-garde and edgy, or possibly like a serial killer. Amri is falling off of a very short step, so apparently she has a bad sense of balance. Steve is a little scary, but he’s mostly hidden behind two cute kids. And Tracy wants you to see her EYE.

    See? That’s only, like, 2/3 scary.

  39. I agree 100% with what Natalie has said. I was the consummate nerd in high school. Friending dozens of my former classmates has allowed me to get to know them a little better and realize that, hey, they’re really nice people after all. We’ve all changed and grown since then, and truth be told, I like being able to let them get to know me a little better too. I like being able to read people’s status updates, 25 Things and other activities — it gives me a better sense of who they are. It’s kind of cool to have the friends from the various spheres of my life all gathered in one place (I’ve even introduced some friends from different spheres to each other). I even see the value in those endless gifts of virtual fish and plants and candy hearts and snowballs — shallow as it may be, it’s a little way to say “hey, I was thinking about you.”

  40. I love Facebook, and I think it does make people nicer to each other, because you comment on friends’ life in a semi-interested way. Like Amri consoled me and gave me great advice on how to revenge my credit card fraud guy. It made me feel loved. :-)

  41. Oh, and you can still be left out of the clique, for example, when people click ignore after your friend request. Ahem. I won’t mention names here.