Serial Friending: How Facebook is Changing the Definition of Friendship

This post is by Juliette is a 15 year old high school student in North Carolina.  She is interested in pursuing a career in writing and in her free time enjoys volleyball, juggling, and photography.

There are many ways to define friendship.  When you are a toddler, your friends are the children of your parent’s friends who you are brought frequently to play with.  Then when you start elementary school, your friends become the kids you share your chocolate milk with at lunch on the first day of school or the younger brother or sister of your older siblings friend.  It is not until middle school that things begin to become tricky.

You grow up or you maybe change schools, and sometimes you lose some of your old friends, but you make new ones as well.  Some students join cliques and the social hierarchy that will become obvious in high school begins to form.  Once in high school, the definition of friendship becomes an even more ambiguous concept.  With teenagers discovering who they are and flirting with new identities, many teens wonder who they can refer to as their true friends.  But this was all before Facebook.  Now, through this social networking service, it says right there on your computer screen how many friends you have, who they are, and who their friends are.

How to Make a Facebook Friend

In order to make a friend on Facebook, a user sends a friend request to another user.  If that user confirms that they are indeed friends then the users appear on each others friend lists and they can send each other messages, write on each other’s walls, or chat.  Also, the number of friends on each of the user’s pages goes up by one.  Displayed conspicuously under a photo of the user, the number of friends is easily noticeable by anyone who looks at their Facebook page.

For most teens, desperate to be liked by their peers, this has turned into just another way to gauge ‘popularity.’  In appearance, it would seem like the most accurate test of popularity as it is literally the number of friends that you have.  Because of this perception, most teen users, especially after they first create their account, feel pressed to friend as many people as fast as possible.  It is utterly nerve racking to see the button under your picture that says Friends (0). You begin to think, “Who has seen this?” “What if they think no one will want to friend me?” “What if no one does friend me?” In frenzy, you think of every one of your friends at school and start incessantly looking them up and sending out your friend requests.

As the confirmations come in and your number spikes upward, you begin to calm down.  But you still look at the pages of your Facebook-veteran friends and check how many friends they have.  Maybe you wonder for how long it will seem like you have fewer friends than everyone else.  But because Facebook has a way of notifying people when all of their friends are friending someone new, you start receiving friend requests yourself.  At first you’re flattered.

But then comes the decision making time.  How well do I really know Sally from Biology class last year who I had a conversation with once and is dating the ex of my best friend.  Is she my friend? Well, maybe if anyone asked you at school you would say “No, not really” and that you do not know her very well.  But this is not at school.  And you do not want to be the some one with an unimpressive number of friends.  Now than that would not look good at all.

Maybe the first time someone like Sally requests your friendship you turn her down and think, “I’ll only friend people who are my real friends.”  But as it happens again and again and your number of friends still dwindles behind the numbers of others, you begin to crack.  “I don’t want to hurt Henry’s feeling,” you think or “Well, they want to be my friend so it would be kind of rude to say that they aren’t.”  But really it is just the evanescent allure of popularity that is always a glimmer on the horizon of teen thought.

As your friend list grows and encompasses those that you would only call a friend under unprecedented circumstances, you will have a list that includes those who you would call family and those who you habitually forget their name.

Facebook has made your definition of a friend, which should be personal to everyone, encompass the many genres of acquaintance.  While examining you own list, you may recognize some of the following descriptions of the many faces of the ‘Facebook friend.’

  1. Real Friends. These are the people who you do not need Facebook to keep in contact with.  Whether you hang out at school with them everyday or maybe chat on the phone all the time, they are an integral part of your life that you would still have even without you beloved Facebook.
  2. Friends of Friends. You friend says, “Oh, you know Jamie…he’s in our grade, brown hair, on the shortish side…he is soooo nice, I’m sure you know him.”  And then they end up hooking you guys up on Facebook.  And so then even though you only know that Jamie is a short brown haired person or maybe you’ve even heard an anecdote about him, he will always be Mary’s friend in your mind, even if he’s your friend on Facebook.
  3. People You Want to Know. These people you sent friend requests to on your own so you’re to blame for stretching the definition in this case.  They could be that super cute junior you starred in the school play and you star at in math class.  You may justify it by saying that your best friend did do theater tech and she knows him (oh course she knows almost half the school), but really you just wanted an excuse to stalk him online.
  4. Old Friends. “Make new friend, but keep the old.”   While it was good intentioned friending, often you do not keep in contact with them any better than you did before you had a Facebook.
  5. Fake Friends. After you have become accustomed to the system of serial friendships on Facebook, you begin to forget what friendship used to mean and gradually assimilate to the system.  While it may have taken months to wear down your resistance, eventually you receive that friendship request from the person who is not really your friend, who you know that they know you are not friends and you accept their friend request nonetheless.
  6. Mr. So and So from the place with the thing that time…Okay, let’s admit it.  You have no idea who this person is.  You do not remember accepting their friend request and you do not recognize the name or the picture, but somehow they are listed among the rest of your ‘friends.’

Because Facebook has made it easy to make friends and teens seek as many friends as possible for the purpose of popularity, many teens end up with an obscene number of friends.  One who I know personally has about 750.  While the person in question is one of the most gregarious people I have ever met, and I am sure does have plenty of friends by the most narrow definition of the word, I still could not believe it upon reading the number.  I’m not sure if I know that many people in the widest definition of knowing.  This however, seems to be the high side of the spectrum.  To seem respectable, only a number of a hundred or so is required.  But this still seems, however you define it, to be an unrealistic to measure friendships.

7 Responses to “Serial Friending: How Facebook is Changing the Definition of Friendship”

  1. Brendan
    July 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm #

    I think I went almost two years without a single friend on facebook. Or maybe one as she was another teacher at the school I worked at.

    Interestingly enough I think in 20 years ago in my high school many people collected friends in a similar way. Most of the rest just wished they could.

    Funny how life can be circular like that.

  2. catie
    February 12, 2009 at 8:49 pm #

    this article is definitely true! realizing i could keep in touch with my real friends without having an online profile is part of the reason i deleted my facebook. by the way- in college there are people who have thousands of friends! 600-700 is almost a norm..crazy

  3. neyat
    February 12, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    Wow! You’re article really hit home. Just yesterday, I was debating whether or not I should delete my facebook account. I just made it a couple months ago, but just as you explained, I found myself comparing how many friends I had to the amount of friends long-time users have. Also, I was beginning to feel like the word “friends” isn’t very fitting. Most people will add anyone with a pulse, just to see their friend count go up, getting one step closer to ultimate popularity. So, thanks for allowing me to see that there’s someone else out there who feels the same way I do! Great article!

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