Are Facebook friends held to a lower standard of accountability than real friends?


Once a year or so, John Perry Barlow has a party called a Barlow Friendzy, a party for his “real friends.”

“A real friend is someone who will get up in the middle of the night and bail you out of jail,” Barlow quips.

A flamboyant, brilliant and outspoken character, writer and revolutionary, Barlow is best known as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and the co-founder of the Electronic Frontieers Foundation.  He’s a guy thousands of people would gladly bail out of jail, just for the chance to spend time in his aura.

Barlow happens to be one of my over 3,379 “Facebook” friends.

I am one of his 4,251 “Facebook friends.”

I met Barlow 15 years now. He’s infinitely more famous than I am, and I don’t expect him to know me, but usually when I run into him at a party he nods, he recognizes me, he smiles, he gives me a hug. We’ve had a few fascinating conversations. That’s about it. But I wouldn’t call him if I needed help moving.

We’re, you know — just “Facebook friends.” And in my world, that’s ok.

When you’re a highly networked person, and those networks are your net worth, not every Friend is a “friend.”

Yesterday, I thought about the ridiculously large number of “friends” we are all accumulating and the way that tends to stretch us all too thin when I discovered that comedian Jimmy Kimmel declared November 17: “National Unfriend Day.” “A day to cut some of the Facebook fat from your life.”

While Kimmel declared this on a comedy show, he seemed sincerely frustrated about Facebook “cheapening” the definition of friendship.

To celebrate “National Unfriend Day” I ditched one Facebook friend for the only reason I have dumped Facebook friends who I have real world history with: I don’t want to share an energetic connection with them because they are untrustworthy.

It’s a serious statement if I dump you as a Facebook friend, because the world of the Visibility Shifter, every person you meet is the key to your future--a potential opportunity, a potential relationship. Nothing happens by chance or accident and the connections that matter can have a profound influence on your life and your success.

But I will in rare cases refuse or ditch Facebook friends because they:

– post annoying comments on my Wall that could potentially discredit me or harm my reputation

– could be judged unfavorably by an uptight potential employer or investor who is doing “due diligence”

– are constantly writing about wacko conspiracy theories

– are too provocative or not wearing a shirt in their profile photo

– have a disturbingly wierd made up name.

As our virtual friend lists grow ever larger,  how do we define who “real” friends are?

– A real friend knows your long term reputation and does not judge you by current, temporary circumstances that could be out of your control (ie: economic downturn impacting your financial status, divorce impacting your emotional state).

– A real friend knows your true nature, not just your projected image.

– A real friend knows your Facebook photo is ten years old, airbrushed or was the last picture taken when you still had hair, and that’s ok.

– A real friend shows up at your rites of passage — births, weddings, graduations, birthdays, funerals.

– A real friend is so significant you’ll pick up the phone to call them — so they are most often the ones who are not even on your Facebook list anyway.

This brings up the question, should we expect Facebook friends to be “real friends” who will be there for you, bail you out of jail, come to your funeral and stand by you when the going gets rough? Is it even realistic to hold people to such a high standard in a public forum? Isn’t that a little harsh? Isn’t that a little limiting?

Isn’t that potentially, an electronic Scarlet Letter waiting to happen?

For now, I’ll keep those “Facebook friends” in an ever-growing list.  Because some of the most amazing connections I’ve made in that past five years started and deepened on social networks. Facebook friends are a potential resource we might someday draw on. They are potential relationships that might deepen. We earned them in the past, and they continue to grow more valuable in the future.  They are our Social Capital.

I continue to believe that our lives are made richer by diversity and inclusion–not separation and exclusion. So friend me. And if you’re wearing a shirt, I’ll friend you back.

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3 thoughts on “Are Facebook friends held to a lower standard of accountability than real friends?

  1. This entry makes me think about my wedding guest list. Who the heck do you invite? Who gets cut off the list. Are my FB friends really my friends? Or is it just a way to be voyeuristic about acquaintances? Jimmy Kimmel had his whole moment with announcing that Nov 17 was National Unfriend Day. I think he was on to something there. At some level, it seems like common sense that you’d only friend people who’d bail you out of jail, but I still question why we still “confirm” when we haven’t really “confirmed” it with ourselves. This entry definitely has me thinking more thoroughly about where boundaries can be bent or just plain put up.

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  2. Set aside all your internet connections. Just think about the real people you might call friends. Is every one of those people someone you would call at 3 a.m. to post bail? I doubt it. Is every one of those people someone you would share your concerns that maybe it’s time to change jobs? No, but that would be a bigger group than would help with bail. Would you share with everyone that you despise politician X? No, but would be a bigger group still. Share your home address and phone number with everyone? Well, might be a few people you wouldn’t even share that much but are still ‘friends’.
    It’s the same in the world of FaceBook, LinkedIn, and all the other sites. There are different levels of friendship and different levels of sharing. I’m not sure why that is such a hard concept to get. How to deal with it? Set up different friend lists for different types of friends or use groups and then share differently with each level of friend. Just like you do in your off-line world.

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  3. Hi Giselle – really good blog post, well thought through. Just discovered – and re-tweeted.
    @FightingReality. The Wedding Guest list is an interesting point. If you get a chance, look at this blog post http://wp.me/pYnfH-3H and the Slideshare presentation by Paul Adams (was Google UX – but just moved to Facebook). He has some good research on levels of friends and our groups of friends. One of the slides he uses explains things using the analogy of the Wedding Guest List and table planning.

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