Who do you "friend" on Facebook? And how do you resolve the tension between private and public interaction?
It's funny how synchronicity works some times. Last week I was thinking about writing a post about how my use of Facebook has changed - or perhaps will change... when a note in my Twitter feed pointed me to a post from Michael Hyatt called "Re-Thinking My Facebook Strategy" which hit many of the points I was thinking about writing.
MICHAEL HYATT'S DILEMMA
Hyatt, who is CEO of Thomas Nelson, Inc, hits one of the central dilemmas relating to our online networking - the incredibly loose way in which we use the word "friend". Leaving aside all the English teachers rolling over in their graves at the way we are now using "friend" as a verb (ex. "I wasn't sure if I should friend him."), Hyatt provides a useful taxonomy of the types of people we interact with online:
- Family: These are the people who are related by blood or by marriage. I have occasionally been too loose with term, too. I have used it to refer to close personal friends or even the “Thomas Nelson family.” But I don’t think this is accurate or helpful. It creates the illusion of something that is not true. From now on, I am going to use this word as it was intended.
- Friends: These are the people I know in real life. They are people I have met face-to-face, enjoy being around, and interact with in real life. (These three elements are key.) Frankly, a few of these relationships started off online through Twitter. Over time, they grew and developed. Regardless, I have a few deep and significant friendships. But if I am honest, I don’t have many. I only have so much time available.
- Acquaintances: These are people I have met online or off. I may know their name or even their face. We may even have been friends at some point in the past, but we don’t have an ongoing relationship. We only know one another at a superficial level, and that’s just fine. We just have to be clear that these are not are “friends.”
- Fans: These are the people who know my public persona or my work. This is also where people get confused because the relationship is not mutual. For example, I am a fan of Chris Brogan. We have even met once. I know lots of stuff about him, because of his blog and Twitter posts. This creates the illusion of intimacy. If I am not careful, however, I could fool myself into thinking I have a relationship with Chris. I don’t. I’m just one of his many fans.
Hyatt goes on to discuss his decision to only keep as "friends" on Facebook his family and actual "friends". His acquaintances and friends he has moved over to a newly-created Fan Page within Facebook. Through this exercise, he has gone from having 2,200 "friends" on Facebook to down to 100. He notes these lessons:
- You have to understand the difference between friends, acquaintances, and fans.
- If I try to be everyone’s friend, I will be no one’s friend. I must be deliberate and selective.
- I will probably offend some of the people I unfriended. That’s okay. My sanity and real friends are more important than meeting the expectations of fans and acquaintances.
- I need to be very careful who I accept as a friend on my profile going forward. Just based on mouse clicks, it’s three times as much work to unfriend someone as friend them.
The comments to both this post and Hyatt's earlier post about his dilemma make for interesting reading. How we relate to each other in online sites like Facebook is in my mind a key part of how we build our online identities as we all live in this increasingly interconnected space. As I wrote about back in January 2009 in a post "The blurring of our lives: Does learning info about co-workers via Facebook improve connections? Or feel creepy?", the different contexts in which we have traditionally interacted with people are all crashing together. The larger ramifications of this on a cultural level are still to be determined.
MY OWN CASE
Now I'm obviously not the CEO of a publishing company and don't have quite the high public profile that Michael Hyatt has. But I do have a public profile... through my various online sites and blogs, my weekly reports into the FIR podcast, my fairly heavy use of Twitter, my very public persona for Voxeo in blogs and Twitter and various other ways that I generate content online. Will all of that online extroversion do come the many Facebook connections (and connection requests) from so many people. Through all of that, I've made some wonderful connections - many of which started online and grew to include face-to-face meetings at various conferences or events. Some of those relationships have remained entirely online but have grown to become what I would consider true friendships.
And yet in other cases I've received connection requests from people who "follow" me in some context... perhaps Twitter... perhaps FIR... perhaps my various blogs... and I haven't really known how to handle them.
Now I've always applied fairly stringent criteria to whom I accept connection/friend requests from on both Facebook and LinkedIn. A number of years ago, I wrote about how "promiscuous linking" weakened the "web of trust" within services like LinkedIn. And I've applied that in LinkedIn very strongly... with perhaps only 1 or 2 exceptions that were accepted in moments of weakness, I know personally and have interacted in some capacity with the 500+ contacts I have in LinkedIn. I don't accept someone's connection request unless I do know them.
On Facebook, it's been similar: I've been fairly stringent about who I accept as a "friend" - although I admit that in the early days I was a bit more open. I joined Facebook several years back shortly after it had been opened up beyond the college/university crowd and there was a good-sized group of us trying to figure out what this Facebook thing was all about - and also how it could or could not be used for business communication. So for a while, I was accepting many friend requests from people I knew only peripherally, many of whom Hyatt would have termed acquaintances at best and perhaps really more "fans". Add to that... all the people I know who are friends, but are friends from different contexts... and it gets interesting.
In the words of Facebook... "It's complicated."
MY CHANGING USAGE OF FACEBOOK
Along the way, I've found that the way I use Facebook has changed somewhat dramatically. In the earlier days, I was exploring it mostly as a business communication tool. My updates... my applications... my notes... all of them were much more business-focused. (And many of my friends probably view my newsfeed today as mainly that... although I can assure them it was more so in the past.)
But somewhere along the way... perhaps sometime after I made my abortive attempt to connect my Twitter firehose directly into my Facebook status updates for a few weeks (resulting example (one of many): "Dan, we are friends, but man, your updates are killing me - you're making up over 90% of my news feed!"), I found that I wanted to use Facebook differently.
I have found that I want to retreat inside the walled garden of Facebook (even while despising walled gardens and fearing for the future of the open Internet)... that I want to share more private information with a smaller group... that I want to share photos, perhaps even of family... that I want to engage in deeper conversations with people I know well - and through that come to know them better.
In part, I'll credit my wife for some of this change. An artist whose eyes routinely glaze over when discussion turns to the online world I live in, she resisted joining Facebook for ages. When she finally did recently, though, she became a very active user... and in watching her interactions I saw more of the possibility for deeper interaction. It's been fascinating, really, to see how she uses it.
THE PUBLIC/PRIVATE DILEMMA
My challenge, of course, is similar to Michael Hyatt's: How do you create a private space in which to have deeper interaction while also simultaneously nourishing and expanding/growing your public persona and public interactions?
Like Hyatt and many of those commenting to his posts, I have a VERY deep and strong aversion to Facebook's terminology of a "Fan Page". I'm NOT a celebrity. I want people to be able to interact with me publicly... yet I don't want them to have to use the bizarre terminology of calling themselves a "fan" of me.
It's the word "fan" that gives me the most trouble.
Being a "fan" has an implied endorsement... a positive feeling. You are a fan of someone or something... you like it... you support it... you endorse it. It makes me uncomfortable.
The "follower" term of Twitter or "subscriber" term of Friendfeed are far less emotionally loaded.
Perhaps if Facebook, in their current lust to become Twitter, could move to talking about "Public Pages" and letting people "subscribe" instead of become a "fan", those of us uncomfortable with the current terms might more readily make use of the function within Facebook.
SO... WHAT TO DO?
I don't know.
I do know that probably in the last year or so, I've become even more stringent in who I accept as a Facebook "friend". My criteria has become:
- Do I know this person well?
- Do I know them well enough that I am comfortable sharing with them personal information about myself?
If the answer to either is "no", then I either "ignore" the request or, in some cases, just park the request in my "Requests" area of Facebook waiting to make a decision.
This has from time to time put me in the uncomfortable situation where there have been people with whom I have peripherally interacted - and with whom I would perhaps like to interact more with - but with whom I don't yet have that comfort level. For those folks, I've perhaps tried to interact with them more on Twitter, where through @replies you can interact with people very easily without needing an established relationship.
As noted above, I don't like the "Fan Page" idea... and so I still don't know how to interact with those who want to engage with my public persona - and with whom I would definitely like to interact in that persona.
Or is perhaps the whole idea of private versus public interaction one I need to simply discard when it comes to Facebook?
We do, indeed, live in interesting times... and sorting out all these different ways of how we interact with each other in this blurred world will definitely take some time.
What do you do? If you have a public face, how have you separated your private versus public interaction in Facebook? Or have you not?
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