Grab Your Copy of Everybody Writes Here >> Now a WSJ Bestseller!

In-Your-Facebook

I got an email from my friend Sharon this morning. She had recently signed up for a Facebook account and had just been “friended” by someone she didn’t know very well. Actually, she didn’t know him at all. She asked something like, “So who is he? Is he a creep? What does he want?” Then, she added, “And since when is ‘friend’ a verb?”

For those of us who work in the digital space and have readily embraced online social media tools like Facebook, it’s easy to brush off Sharon’s condition as Neophyte Nerves. But, in truth, the essence of her concerns about privacy and access to her personal life has been clouding my wizened brow, too. And by “privacy” I’m not talking about access to my data—where I’ve been on the internet, or what I’ve bought, or what I’m emailing about.

I’m concerned with something more fundamental and frailer than that: a sense of having my emotional privacy eroded, and a sense that the level of intimacy I have with my Facebook folks—and they have with me—is not in my control. Facebook has changed the rules.

Facebook, if you haven’t taken a spin there, is an online network with some 62 million active users. It bills itself as a “social utility” that connects people with friends as well as those who work, go to school, share interests with and live around them. You can use Facebook to keep up with friends, learn more about them, see who they are networked with—along with fun stuff like upload photos, share links and videos, and join groups, both professional and not-so. Facebook is a mix of social and professional, serious and silly—kind of like our lives in the real world.

Right now, I have close to 400 friends on my Facebook profile page. At the start of my romp through Facebook, I was like Dorothy approaching the Emerald Castle, greedily gathering armfuls of friends like poppies, plucking them from the various flowerbeds of life. But now, I’m increasingly feeling affects similar to Dorothy’s after her frolic through the poppies. I, too, am feeling a little queasy.

Interestingly, what I love about Facebook is also what I’m starting to hate about it. Six months ago, it felt fun to amass lots of contacts, be back in touch with old friends, see the degrees of separation between this person and that one. I love that I have all my friends and contacts in one living, limitless, connected digital Rolodex. (Well, at least the ones who have set up Facebook profiles.)

Incredibly, for example, I bumped into a boy I went to Junior High with. He’s a man now, and lives on the other side of the country—and even though we haven’t talked for 30 years, he happens to know a lot of the people I’ve come to know. How weird is that?

Then I caught up with a college roommate who moved from Boston to South Dakota, and I “met” her kids, too. I forged a couple of truly great new friends, including Chris Brogan and Jeffrey Sass. And on my birthday… well, with all the Facebook “gifts” and greetings showered on me, I never glowed with more love.

It’s moments like those that I sometimes pause and think about how impossible any of this would be without the tremendous gift that is the Digital Age, and I say a silent prayer of thanks for living now and not, say, when all we had to communicate with was a nub of charcoal and the inside of a cave.

But there’s a flip side to all of this glorious connectivity. First, my teenage son has a Facebook page, and I’ve bumped into him and his friends a few times. I want the kid to have his privacy (within, you know, limits), so I always politely turn aside like I didn’t actually see him, sort of like if I accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom.

I’ve also occasionally bumped into an old boyfriend on Facebook. Although it’s been years since I saw him (which is a decidedly good thing), it seems that we still are in touch with some of the same people. So, small windows that I had shut and bolted long ago are briefly pried opened. Do I want to know that he and his new girlfriend went to see Cloverfield? No. But, at the same time, when you drive by an old flame, it’s hard not to rubberneck.

I’m not the only one who has seen the darker side of connectivity. My friend Shelley masks her geographical location on Facebook so that a creepy ex-husband can’t put too fine a point on it. My friend Eileen was contacted out of the blue by someone she’d rather not be in touch with, who found her (guess how!) on Facebook.

(And—in a related example—my colleague Paul Chaney took some heat when he inadvertently breached Facebook etiquette—unofficial rules he admits he didn’t know existed.)

danah boyd, who studies social networks at UC Berkeley, calls this “context management.” In other words, it’s suddenly work to manage the context of your online “profile,” which, oddly, seems to take on a life of its own.

Social networking sites can be all fun and games and connections. But, at the same time, they make you consider some fundamental issues of intimacy, access, and personal privacy—or lack thereof. It’s work to manage your privacy settings and requests for access to your life, personal and professional. It’s work to think about who sees you and how they see you and who you see… and it’s often, as danah says, flat-out “unfun”:

It sucks for teens trying to balance mom and friends. It sucks for college students trying to have a social life and not piss off their profs. It sucks for 20-somethings trying to date and balance their boss’s presence.

And, increasingly, it sucks for all of us, too, who are somewhere north of 20-ish.

Total Annarchy

Join at least a handful of your peers and all of Ann's relatives. Get new posts by email.

OR Subscribe via RSS Reader

37 Responses to In-Your-Facebook

  1. Lewis Green says:

    Excellent way to discuss two sides of social media connectivity. Although a man, not a woman or a teenager who might (or might not) be more vulnerable to the dark side of social connectivity, I get it.

    I often worry when I invite another person to link with me, knowing they might not know me. Although careful to choose others based on their business experiences, it remains a concern, as inviting a stranger to be a “friend” is weird by any definition. Of course, most of our aren’t inviting others to become friends, unless we have already begun the relationship-building process. We are, instead, inviting them to begin that relationship-building process via social media.

    I could go on, but shouldn’t. Good post Ann.

  2. Lewis Green says:

    Excellent way to discuss two sides of social media connectivity. Although a man, not a woman or a teenager who might (or might not) be more vulnerable to the dark side of social connectivity, I get it.

    I often worry when I invite another person to link with me, knowing they might not know me. Although careful to choose others based on their business experiences, it remains a concern, as inviting a stranger to be a “friend” is weird by any definition. Of course, most of our aren’t inviting others to become friends, unless we have already begun the relationship-building process. We are, instead, inviting them to begin that relationship-building process via social media.

    I could go on, but shouldn’t. Good post Ann.

  3. Mack Collier says:

    This is another reason why I was determined to go to some conferences/meetups this year, because it’s just too easy to be someone’s ‘friend’ online. I now have more ‘friends’ on Twitter than on Facebook, but often I will see someone leaving a tweet and think to myself ‘I have no idea who that is or why I am following them’.

    I remember when I first started blogging I would scratch my head at some bloggers that just constantly went on and on about going to conferences. It makes a lot more sense to me now.

  4. Mack Collier says:

    This is another reason why I was determined to go to some conferences/meetups this year, because it’s just too easy to be someone’s ‘friend’ online. I now have more ‘friends’ on Twitter than on Facebook, but often I will see someone leaving a tweet and think to myself ‘I have no idea who that is or why I am following them’.

    I remember when I first started blogging I would scratch my head at some bloggers that just constantly went on and on about going to conferences. It makes a lot more sense to me now.

  5. Pingback: Facebook » In-Your-Facebook

  6. Nedra says:

    I have such a strange mix of friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and virtual strangers that it is very hard to manage the info I post. I basically have 2 levels of privacy settings, where I will only allow access to things like my status updates, personal info, photos, etc if I actually have a preexisting relationship with someone. But there are fine gradations in between. I would love if Facebook would let us set different contexts to put people into, so we could for example post biz-related info that’s only shown to our work colleagues (bc it would make friends & family yawn) and personal info to our closer circle.

    And I also have a creepy guy who I added who was the friend of an existing FB acquaintance who had recommended him as a business contact. He sends me “hugs” and invites me to join the “rate my hotness” app that are completely inappropriate for the reason why we had initially connected (I just ignore everything he sends). He’s apparently never met a FB app he didn’t like. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but come to think of it, I am getting nothing but annoyance from him. Maybe it’s time to be a little UNFRIENDly.

  7. Nedra says:

    I have such a strange mix of friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and virtual strangers that it is very hard to manage the info I post. I basically have 2 levels of privacy settings, where I will only allow access to things like my status updates, personal info, photos, etc if I actually have a preexisting relationship with someone. But there are fine gradations in between. I would love if Facebook would let us set different contexts to put people into, so we could for example post biz-related info that’s only shown to our work colleagues (bc it would make friends & family yawn) and personal info to our closer circle.

    And I also have a creepy guy who I added who was the friend of an existing FB acquaintance who had recommended him as a business contact. He sends me “hugs” and invites me to join the “rate my hotness” app that are completely inappropriate for the reason why we had initially connected (I just ignore everything he sends). He’s apparently never met a FB app he didn’t like. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but come to think of it, I am getting nothing but annoyance from him. Maybe it’s time to be a little UNFRIENDly.

  8. Travis says:

    I’ve yet to upload a photo or any details to my Facebook profile. It was initially fun and all seeing which retail store the people I never spoke to in high school were currently working at.

    But once you realize how much you’re able to see and learn about them through this little blue and white page, it’s pretty scary.

    I sure as hell wouldn’t want any of my exes to regularly check up on my profile in hopes of finding a new picture to throw darts at.

    I read an interesting post yesterday at Lisa Bettany’s blog, where she described an awkward Facebook pickup:

    http://www.mostlylisa.com/2008/02/04/best-pick-up-line-ever/

    I think Facebook is quickly becoming the new MySpace—another social movement I thankfully disregarded.

  9. Travis says:

    I’ve yet to upload a photo or any details to my Facebook profile. It was initially fun and all seeing which retail store the people I never spoke to in high school were currently working at.

    But once you realize how much you’re able to see and learn about them through this little blue and white page, it’s pretty scary.

    I sure as hell wouldn’t want any of my exes to regularly check up on my profile in hopes of finding a new picture to throw darts at.

    I read an interesting post yesterday at Lisa Bettany’s blog, where she described an awkward Facebook pickup:

    http://www.mostlylisa.com/2008/02/04/best-pick-up-line-ever/

    I think Facebook is quickly becoming the new MySpace—another social movement I thankfully disregarded.

  10. Toad says:

    Great post Ann, great blog overall.

    Great timing too. Just this week I started getting friend invites from people I didn’t know. They seemed to be friends of friends, but still… it’s annoying enough when the people at the very periphery of your social circle are the ones doing the most frequent status updating, group joining and twittering. But complete strangers?

    @Nedra: The problem with having varying levels of privacy (as Plaxo Pulse is finding out) is that it’s rare that people agree on their level of mutual intimacy. So someone you consider a casual business acquaintance might consider you a good friend or vice versa. Telling them otherwise is only going to lead to hurt feelings.

  11. Toad says:

    Great post Ann, great blog overall.

    Great timing too. Just this week I started getting friend invites from people I didn’t know. They seemed to be friends of friends, but still… it’s annoying enough when the people at the very periphery of your social circle are the ones doing the most frequent status updating, group joining and twittering. But complete strangers?

    @Nedra: The problem with having varying levels of privacy (as Plaxo Pulse is finding out) is that it’s rare that people agree on their level of mutual intimacy. So someone you consider a casual business acquaintance might consider you a good friend or vice versa. Telling them otherwise is only going to lead to hurt feelings.

  12. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks, all, for your comments. I like this quote from Lewis, “We are, instead, inviting them to begin that relationship-building process via social media.” In other words, naming them friends before they really are, or (in some cases) sharing access to each other when we may NEVER be friends.” Sometimes that means people you’ve never met (as Toad says), or sometimes it means people who you really don’t want to hang with (like exes or my kid!) Facebook (along with others) has changed the rules.

  13. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks, all, for your comments. I like this quote from Lewis, “We are, instead, inviting them to begin that relationship-building process via social media.” In other words, naming them friends before they really are, or (in some cases) sharing access to each other when we may NEVER be friends.” Sometimes that means people you’ve never met (as Toad says), or sometimes it means people who you really don’t want to hang with (like exes or my kid!) Facebook (along with others) has changed the rules.

  14. How true, Ann. I think this is something we all struggle with. And it probably won’t go away for a very long time (or ever).

    One of the hardest parts about managing these connections is the fact that there are no “rules.” No black and white. You have to weigh everything on a case-by-case basis. Which requires time, effort, tact, patience and lots of other tricky digital-social skills that most of us have yet to master.

    When you scale these difficulties over 400 (or 4,000) friends, suddenly you’ve got a little mess on your hands. And the more people you meet, the harder it gets.

    I guess the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep trying, and keep seeing what works for YOU. Without any clear-cut rules, we have to wade through this space one relationship at a time.

  15. How true, Ann. I think this is something we all struggle with. And it probably won’t go away for a very long time (or ever).

    One of the hardest parts about managing these connections is the fact that there are no “rules.” No black and white. You have to weigh everything on a case-by-case basis. Which requires time, effort, tact, patience and lots of other tricky digital-social skills that most of us have yet to master.

    When you scale these difficulties over 400 (or 4,000) friends, suddenly you’ve got a little mess on your hands. And the more people you meet, the harder it gets.

    I guess the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep trying, and keep seeing what works for YOU. Without any clear-cut rules, we have to wade through this space one relationship at a time.

  16. Jeff Sass says:

    Ann,

    Thanks for the mention above. I figured the most appropriate way to respond under the circumstances would be in your Facebook so I also sent you this message there. I too, am very glad to have befriended you, and am glad we have had the chance to meet in the real world (forever memorialized in the INVITATIONS PSA – hehe).

    Like everything — EVERYTHING — in life, it’s all about balance, and as long as we can balance the value of social networking with the annoyances, and keep the VALUE on top, it definitely can be a worthwhile pursuit.

    In the real world we choose where to live… and we usually end up with neighbors we befriend, neighbors we can’t stand, neighbors we argue with and neighbors we never encounter at all. If the balance gets out of whack, and the bad neighbors start to prevail, we can always move.

    Social networks aren’t much different.

    Glad to have you as a great neighbor!

    Have a great weekend.

  17. Jeff Sass says:

    Ann,

    Thanks for the mention above. I figured the most appropriate way to respond under the circumstances would be in your Facebook so I also sent you this message there. I too, am very glad to have befriended you, and am glad we have had the chance to meet in the real world (forever memorialized in the INVITATIONS PSA – hehe).

    Like everything — EVERYTHING — in life, it’s all about balance, and as long as we can balance the value of social networking with the annoyances, and keep the VALUE on top, it definitely can be a worthwhile pursuit.

    In the real world we choose where to live… and we usually end up with neighbors we befriend, neighbors we can’t stand, neighbors we argue with and neighbors we never encounter at all. If the balance gets out of whack, and the bad neighbors start to prevail, we can always move.

    Social networks aren’t much different.

    Glad to have you as a great neighbor!

    Have a great weekend.

  18. David Reich says:

    I find myself starting to ignore the emails I get about Facebook friends and messages. It’s getting to be a bit too much — almost like another form of spam.

  19. David Reich says:

    I find myself starting to ignore the emails I get about Facebook friends and messages. It’s getting to be a bit too much — almost like another form of spam.

  20. Ann, I find it interesting and a little surprising that something of such a social nature can so quickly become obtrusive and bothersome.

    I seldom visit Facebook anymore – and wonder how so many of my ‘friends’ have time to poke me or invite to participate in various things. While there is a measure of valuable content on Facebook, I resist it — relying, instead, on other social media tools…

    In face, now I Twitter, instead. Something I never thought I’d do! I’m glad I have a Facebook account…but, it’s not as friendly as I’d hoped. So, it’s back to blogging…a social media tool that I can manage on my own terms.

  21. Ann, I find it interesting and a little surprising that something of such a social nature can so quickly become obtrusive and bothersome.

    I seldom visit Facebook anymore – and wonder how so many of my ‘friends’ have time to poke me or invite to participate in various things. While there is a measure of valuable content on Facebook, I resist it — relying, instead, on other social media tools…

    In face, now I Twitter, instead. Something I never thought I’d do! I’m glad I have a Facebook account…but, it’s not as friendly as I’d hoped. So, it’s back to blogging…a social media tool that I can manage on my own terms.

  22. Dusan says:

    And there come even more services to make us happy together:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7230686.stm

    This post I love mostly, Ann. :-)

  23. Dusan says:

    And there come even more services to make us happy together:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7230686.stm

    This post I love mostly, Ann. :-)

  24. I have to admit to mixed feelings as well about Facebook – I’ve got my toe in the water over there but – and maybe this is just a function of age – I have a hard time using the word “friend” so promiscuously. Or exposing too many personal details in the on-line fishbowl. Is it old-fashioned to believe that there is value in discretion??

  25. I have to admit to mixed feelings as well about Facebook – I’ve got my toe in the water over there but – and maybe this is just a function of age – I have a hard time using the word “friend” so promiscuously. Or exposing too many personal details in the on-line fishbowl. Is it old-fashioned to believe that there is value in discretion??

  26. Tammy Allen says:

    I don’t like facebook. It’s too gimmicky and difficult to navigate. I deleted my profile. I prefer myspace. I feel I made some real connections there and I will meet many of my “friends” in person someday. I’m sure of it. Plus, I made connections with people I haven’t seen in years. Perhaps it’s because I’m a musician. Facebook feels like fakebook to me.

  27. Tammy Allen says:

    I don’t like facebook. It’s too gimmicky and difficult to navigate. I deleted my profile. I prefer myspace. I feel I made some real connections there and I will meet many of my “friends” in person someday. I’m sure of it. Plus, I made connections with people I haven’t seen in years. Perhaps it’s because I’m a musician. Facebook feels like fakebook to me.

  28. Amy says:

    I have to say I love the status updates. When I need a break from work for just a minute I find it a great way to reboot my brain without getting overly involved in something I don’t have time for at the moment.

  29. Amy says:

    I have to say I love the status updates. When I need a break from work for just a minute I find it a great way to reboot my brain without getting overly involved in something I don’t have time for at the moment.

  30. Amy says:

    I’ve been thinking about your blog and an interesting thing that happened to me. A work associate of mine has a 12-year old daughter who asked me to be her friend on Facebook. I have no idea why other than she’s 12 and trying to rack up as many friends as possible. So, I agreed and just kind of kept her in the background – not really paying attention to her. One day my “news feed” thing remarked that this girl had added her cell phone number. Suddenly I felt like this was very bad news. She’s asking me to be her friend, so I’m assuming she’s asking a lot of people she doesn’t know very well and now she’s posting her cell number. I felt obligated to get involved and tell my friend, her father. Now I’m getting involved in their family business and getting kids in trouble and so on and wondering if I overstepped my boundaries. Then I realized it’s no different than seeing your friend’s kid at a movie theater or somewhere involved in something way over her head. That “running into each other” are what communities are made of. And while it isn’t always the involvement we’re looking for, it the involvement community gives us. Research shows that community is very good for us. Makes us happier, healthier, live longer, etc. Will this bode true for the online community in the end? Who knows.

  31. Amy says:

    I’ve been thinking about your blog and an interesting thing that happened to me. A work associate of mine has a 12-year old daughter who asked me to be her friend on Facebook. I have no idea why other than she’s 12 and trying to rack up as many friends as possible. So, I agreed and just kind of kept her in the background – not really paying attention to her. One day my “news feed” thing remarked that this girl had added her cell phone number. Suddenly I felt like this was very bad news. She’s asking me to be her friend, so I’m assuming she’s asking a lot of people she doesn’t know very well and now she’s posting her cell number. I felt obligated to get involved and tell my friend, her father. Now I’m getting involved in their family business and getting kids in trouble and so on and wondering if I overstepped my boundaries. Then I realized it’s no different than seeing your friend’s kid at a movie theater or somewhere involved in something way over her head. That “running into each other” are what communities are made of. And while it isn’t always the involvement we’re looking for, it the involvement community gives us. Research shows that community is very good for us. Makes us happier, healthier, live longer, etc. Will this bode true for the online community in the end? Who knows.

  32. Ann Handley says:

    Amy: Interesting story… I’m all for “community,” BTW, but Facebook definitely changes the rules for community, if you choose to go there. Like Steve, Yvonne and others here… I’ve been wondering about how much I want to open myself up, and how much I want to know about others, too.

    Thanks for sharing that story!

  33. Ann Handley says:

    Amy: Interesting story… I’m all for “community,” BTW, but Facebook definitely changes the rules for community, if you choose to go there. Like Steve, Yvonne and others here… I’ve been wondering about how much I want to open myself up, and how much I want to know about others, too.

    Thanks for sharing that story!

  34. Pingback: Social Networking spinning new webs « Soulseeking’s Weblog

  35. Ann Handley says:

    Love this video… which nicely captures what I suggest here, but with far more humor:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=nrlSkU0TFLs

  36. Ann Handley says:

    Love this video… which nicely captures what I suggest here, but with far more humor:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=nrlSkU0TFLs

  37. Pingback: This Mommy Gig » Blog Archive » Is It Okay for an 11-Year-Old to Be on Facebook?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>