Reihan Salam talks with readers about Facebook etiquette and managing online friendships.

Reihan Salam talks with readers about Facebook etiquette and managing online friendships.

Reihan Salam talks with readers about Facebook etiquette and managing online friendships.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Sept. 27 2007 1:53 PM

What Are Friends For?

Reihan Salam takes readers' questions about Facebook etiquette and managing your buddies.

Slate contributor Reihan Salam was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Sept. 27, to discuss Facebook etiquette and the social-networking phenomenon. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Reihan Salam: Hello! My name is Reihan Salam, and I recently wrote a short piece on Facebook etiquette. I've been a great lover of social networking software for a few years now. Though I was never a big user of Internet Relay Chat, in the pre-Friendster era, I'd spent lots of time time at websites where people would construct "profiles" from Instant Messenger screen names and incredibly long lists of favorite bands. I started using Facebook soon after it started, in 2004, and I actively use Last.fm, Pownce, and del.icio.us and I'm always eager to check out new ones. I'm really looking forward to answering your questions.

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New York: What sort of (albeit obviously generalized) conclusions can be intelligently drawn about people who are on Facebook vs. choosing not to be?

Reihan Salam: This is an excellent question, and a tough one to answer, particularly because there are now 40 million users (and climbing). So let's narrow it down and talk about kids in college, and particularly kids in college who live on campus. Because so many of your (real-world) friends are using Facebook, you are making a very self-conscious decision to stand apart from the crowd. Perhaps it's because you find Facebook to be a massive time-waster. (And incidentally, you'd be right!) Or, in some cases, you might be concerned about your privacy. That's part of why Facebook bends over backwards to provide a wide array of privacy features: you can protect your information as much as you want. In part, this was a play for parents—you can feel safe about your kids using it, etc.

When it comes to post-college adults, it's still a minority that chooses to sign up—a larger minority among twentysomethings, a dwindling share the further up you go. And in this group, I suspect you have a mix: early adopters and technology enthusiasts, people who want to be in on the cool new thing, and people who want to keep tabs on their fellow wired friends.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who choose to steer clear of Facebook. But for me, it's been a pretty useful and fun tool, and my guess is that it will get more useful rather than less. So you might say the goalposts are shifting: the people who choose not to be on Facebook *now* might choose to be on in the next few months. A lot of people joke about having their resistance worn down by the Facebook throngs.

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Boonton, N.J.: I've been on Facebook for a month now but never recieved friend requests from strangers and don't understand how people have like 1,000 friends, 90 percent of them strangers. How is that?

Reihan Salam: Tell me about it! Once you get into four-digit territory, you are talking about some very, very sociable people.

Once again, I'd say this varies by age group. Among younger people, in high school and college, it is really common to "friend" people you barely know—say, we're in the same AP Chemistry class. Or, we live in the same dorm. Different people have different thresholds. Now, if you attend a big high school (mine had 3000 students) those numbers add up pretty quickly. The same goes for college.

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My strong suspicion is that there is also an element of "competitive friending," i.e., an arms race over who can have the most friends. I think of this as more of a MySpace phenomenon, where one is encouraged to make friends with strangers, or to have a secret identity or nom de Myspace. Facebook *discourages* that sort of thing. The grand idea is that Facebook is a "social graph," a kind of map that represents who you know and interact with on a regular basis. When you think about it, this is a tremendously useful thing to have over time.

But, I mean, who interacts with 1,000 people in anything but the most fleeting way? Well, I'll bet Bill Clinton does, and there are probably a few others out there. I wouldn't think too much of it, though.

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Waterbury, Conn.: You write for the Washington Post and you don't even know what a "corsair" is? I believe your article mentioned "a pirate wielding a corsair." A corsair is a Barbary pirate (or possibly one of his ships) ... so you basically said "a pirate wielding a pirate." What kind of a writer uses words they don't even know the definition of? How did you ever get to be a professional writer if you make these kinds of titanically stupid errors?

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Reihan Salam: Oh, I know what a "corsair" is—and I *was* using it as a sleek, fast-moving ship. Granted, my use was a little unconventional: "a pirate wielding a sleek, fast-moving ship." But your point is well-taken.

"Titanically-stupid" seems a little strong, but I've been called worse. I will tell you why I *wanted* to become a writer—for longer than I can possibly say, I've wanted to interact with people like you in live chats. And now I can!

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Vienna, Va.: As a person who finds Facebook creepy but sometimes useful, one way I've gotten around a lot of the problems you outlined in your article is by creating a "fake" profile under a pseudonym and simply friending all the people I want to be friends with. People have told me deleting my real account has made me dead to the world and that operating under this system is "not what Facebook is about." Am I a terrible person?

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Reihan Salam: Hmm ... this is a tough one. Not whether or not you're a terrible person! How could you be—you have excellent taste in chats!

But it *is* true that Facebook is supposed to be about real names. I know the folks at Facebook would rather you didn't use a fake name. You could probably do just fine by, for example, adjusting your privacy settings so your name won't come up in a search.

That said, I certainly don't think this is the worst thing in the world. Yes, deleting your real account means you've lost a lot of information. But this raises a question—what if you leave Facebook for another network? One of the big problems with Facebook, in my view, is that they "own" a lot of this information about your friendships, and it can't be easily carried from one service to another. A lot of folks, like David Recordon at Six Apart and Brad Fitzpatrick at Google, are trying to solve this problem. But that's a whole other issue!

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Los Angeles: What about relationship status on Facebook? I'm out of college and in my social network you are not considered to be seeing someone until you're "in a relationship" via Facebook. Discuss.

Reihan Salam: That's really interesting! And I'm guessing you're a bit younger than I am. I personally think this is a little silly: what if your boyfriend or girlfriend isn't on Facebook? And what if you'd rather not share your relationship information with the world? Personally, I don't include any information about relationship status, and I of course don't see anything wrong with that.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I belong to an arts organization that just got a MySpace page a few months ago. A couple of times, very strange things have shown up in the Bulletins. One looked like a scam (for gift cards) the other was porn. As one of the site admins I had no choice but to delete the friends. Were these friends real and suffered a hijacking of their identities? I don't know of any approval process we could put potential friends through, other than to click on their own pages. The inability to delete individual bulletin entries is troubling.

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Reihan Salam: Oh boy, that is a real problem, particularly on MySpace, and it's a good reason to strongly encourage people to stick to real identities. Facebook is still *mostly* free of this sort of thing (thanks to the yeoman-life efforts at corporate headquarters). Yes, chances are these "friends" are not really friends at all, but vehicles for sleazy, low-rent advertising. This is one of those pervasive perils of the Internet age, I'm afraid. Good for you for being vigilant about it.

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Frederick, Md.: Hello and thank you for taking a question from a clueless parent. I recently learned my 15-year-old has a Facebook (profile? page?). I knew she was on MySpace and have looked at her profile and her friends' pages on MySpace, but I was under the impression that Facebook is for the college-age crowd and older. Should I be concerned?

Reihan Salam: Well, I'm reluctant to give you a simple answer because this is a tough question: the key thing is, how do you feel about your 15-year-old's peer group? Because a Facebook profile is really just a map of a peer group, or should be. I'd talk to your child about it, and maybe stress a few points: don't friend strangers, be very aware of the fact that the information you type in could fall into the wrong hands, even if you apply really strict privacy settings.

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Facebook *is* available to high schoolers now and has been for a while now. I do think it is a safer option than MySpace in some ways. The key thing is to use it intelligently and to be aware of the risks. Overall, however, I think Facebook is a fun and even useful tool when used responsibly.

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Tacoma, Wash.: I have two specific issues that you didn't mention in the article and that I think will become increasingly common: I was "friends" with my little sister's boyfriend, but a few weeks ago they had a bad breakup. She dropped her Facebook account entirely, but now I'm still friends with the ex. Any advice? Also, I am a professor, and I have many students on Facebook. One friended me and I said yes. I'm not sure what is appropriate in this case and I'm a little uncomfortable about it. Should I not have done it? Thanks!

Reihan Salam: That's a tough one—and it's a situation that, as you know, often emerges in real life. Here, the question is: do you really need to de-friend this person? Is your little sister asking you to defriend him? That would be a little strong, not to mention intrusive, but that is her prerogative as your sister. If not, well, what's the harm? Or if you really think Facebook should only map your real friends, go ahead and de-friend. I think the stakes aren't really that high in this case.

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And I think it is absolutely appropriate for you to accept friend requests from students—but making the request yourself? That probably is a bad idea. I'd avoid it.

That said, don't worry about rejecting these requests—do you really want your students to have access to your profile? Maybe not.

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Washington: Can you explain what you mean by Facebook "owning" information about your friendships? Thanks.

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Reihan Salam: A lot of websites let you export information to other websites/services. But say you leave Facebook for Orkut—can you simply port over all of your friendships, wall posts, messages, etc.? Nope.

I don't mean to imply there's anything sinister here, and Facebook has talked about becoming more open. But this is a bit of a side issue.

Check this out if you're interested:

http://bradfitz.com/social-graph-problem/

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Atlanta: I think it's ridiculous to believe that a person who adds you randomly is Facebook-stalking you. I find myself adding people who I think are attractive or have something funny on their page. It's networking—you never know who knows who. I model, at times, so it is nice to see another model with nice photos (maybe she knows a photographer in my area) so I click add as a friend. Rejecting someone seems so snobby. Better to just not click anything and have 103 friend requests pending. However, the hardest part of Facebook, being a member since 2005, is the new applications. There are so many and there are so many requests to join. That can be annoying. Vampires and Pirates and Ghouls, Oh My!

I think a Facebook purge of friends is a waste of time. It takes more time to go back and look at a person's profile just to see if they are still worth being your "friend" than to just take it and roll with the punches. You can spend hours just deleting five "friends" that seem unworthy. Then, for spending that much time online on Facebook to begin with, was it really worth it?

Reihan Salam: To each her/his own!

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Not sure where you got the idea that random-friending necessarily means stalking. I certainly don't think that's true. But I do think unscrupulous people do use Facebook, and any other social networking website, and that one should be cautious about sharing information.

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San Diego: Hi Reihan. I like your statement: "Do you want everyone you went to college with to see your photos, or only actual friends?" My question is, should people who haven't pleased the gatekeepers of academia—like you have, because it is always people like you writing about "your" Facebook, which was created for affluent Ivy League brats—consider themselves worthy of any Facebook friends like you? Or should I stick with my own caste? And yes, you're welcome to pretend that I represent all those awful non-elite scummers who would presume to have a Facebook identity.

Reihan Salam: This is a little odd. Perhaps you're a little confused about how Facebook works. I'd recommend you check out www.facebook.com. Good luck with your rage!

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Over-40 Facebooker: As social networking sites expand beyond their youth core, how do they plan to explain their value to those of us whose college days are long over? Does allowing "old" people in dilute the value of sites like Facebook to their core audience?

Reihan Salam: Absolutely not! Plenty of college students are quite pleased to friend older siblings and even parents. The more people who belong to Facebook, the more useful it becomes. That's why some of us are really excited about open platforms: the more people you can chat with, or you can email, the more useful *any* system becomes.

The truth is, it is so easy to ignore people/have nothing to do with them that new members have scarcely any effect. Some social networking sites are self-consciously selective (for brainy people or preppies or alumnae/i or elite schools). And it's easy to see why someone might appreciate that added level of exclusivity. But I don't think that's the deep logic of Facebook—yes, they want to use networks within the network to structure and manage information, and to provide a built-in level of privacy, but they want to be a network of networks that is fundamentally inclusive. I think ...

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Facebook vs. MySpace: I have a MySpace page. How is MySpace similar to/different from Facebook?

Reihan Salam: Boy, answering this one could take a really long time! One difference, probably not the one you're looking for, is that Facebook is an independent company and MySpace is owned by News Corp. MySpace has way more members, and it is based on a different set of ideas: it is more about expressing an identity, even a fanciful or made-up one, through the use of design (wallpaper, skins, fonts, etc.), music (built-in audio players are a lot more common), kooky screennames. Now that Facebook has launched the Facebook platform, they've made the site a lot more extensible/customizable, like MySpace, but they take a fundamentally different approach—they want to deepen your connections to people you *already* know in real life.

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Landstuhl, Germany: Just wanted to say I liked your article on Facebook. It answered my questions about what to do about "friends" requests. I am an Americn living in Germany but am from an ethnic minority also, so I can relate to your comments. I recently discovered Facebook and thought I would check it out but am not too sure how to use it. I am what you would call "living in the technological dinosaur age"!

Reihan Salam: Go ahead and try it—40 million other people have figured it out, so there's no reason you can't too!

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A regular Slate reader: Are you and Emily Yoffe friends on Facebook?

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Reihan Salam: You know what, I sent her a message once (because I am a really big fan), but I haven't friended her. Quite frankly, I don't feel worthy. She's seven times the writer I'll ever be! Plus I haven't met her in person.

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Anonymous: A funny Facebook story—Facebook launched for my school when I was a junior, an interesting time because much later and I probably never would have joined. After graduating a few years ago, I just recently received a Facebook message from a girl who's currently a senior. She lives in the university-owned townhouse where I lived my senior year, and they received a package for me. Two years later, seems a relative had an old address for me. Because the package looked more substantial than junk-mail, this girl used Facebook to look me up, discovered I still lived in the city, and let me know. I know two years back that Facebook (or similar programs) never would have provided that opportunity for the mail we used to receive for past residents!

Reihan Salam: Wow! You know, she *could* have tracked you down in the bad old days, but it would've been a lot tougher. This is one small part of the promise of social networking: we don't always know how this stuff enhances our life, but neat things like this happen all the time.

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You might say I'm drinking the Kool-Aid.

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Vienna, Va.: In response to the relationship issue on Facebook, my girlfriend put "engaged" as a joke when they first made that an option. It's alarming how seriously people take it. People take what's written on profiles extremely seriously, which I guess is the point of the whole "real names" thing. But whatever.

Reihan Salam: Yeah, people can be a little kooky. This is a pretty irony-steeped generation—most of my supposedly "married" or "engaged" Facebook friends are in fact joking around. But I'll bet this is far less common in other groups.

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Washington: Has Facebook killed MySpace? I think the layout is far superior, and MySpace seems to be just completely overwhelmed with spam.

Reihan Salam: Well, MySpace is run by very smart people—my guess is that they are adapting in response to the Facebook threat, and that we'll soon see some very impressive stuff. Remember that this is their livelihood, and that you don't build a network that popular by being a dunderhead.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Salam. I wanted to say, I joined Facebook the day after I graduated in 2006. I didn't want to spend my parent's money wasting time on Facebook. Now I barely use it, but it's good to keep in touch. I will, however, continue to prefer a well-intentioned phone call to a Facebook message/wall post.

Reihan Salam: You and me both, Arlington, VA.

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Melbourne, Fla.: I find the example you used to show how to reject friend requests just felt wrong. I'm a Christian, not Muslim—but I never would speak so flippantly about one of G-ds commands. I do respect that Christians are told not to be friends with "the world," and Muslim faith I think commands the same, but "sorry, man Allah commands it" seems like you're using G-d as an 'excuse' ... would you really want someone to say something like that if they weren't Muslim? Wouldn't that show enormous disrespect for your G-d? Not to mention should a Muslim say it! Please, can you consider this? Thank you.

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Reihan Salam: I meant that as a light-hearted joke, and I truly didn't intend to offend you or anyone else. This is a real issue: I've written a number of short pieces that aim to make light-hearted fun, but of course the things *I* find funny are sometimes things other people take very seriously. I guess this is a risk you take whenever you send something out into the world.

I do think it's important that we assume good faith on the part of other people: do you really think Paul Krugman or David Brooks mean to hurt or offend people, or do you think they're expressing their honest views about the world? Did Don Rickles want to make people feel horrible about themselves?

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Washington: I work here at The Post—great article. I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of MySpace in your article even though they dwarf Facebook with more than 200 million users, and also no mention of the fact that Facebook only very recently allowed users without a .edu e-mail address to join. While the debate among us regarding social networking superiority between the sites rages on, at 25, my immediate social group of 15-25 people is all on MySpace. Los Angeles is totally right—as soon as I became "official" with my girlfriend (who is on Facebook and not MySpace, thank god), my friends' first question was "did you switch your status on MySpace?" As twentysomethings, are we just lame? Thanks.

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Reihan Salam: Not at all! But I do think you notice some broad patterns—I am in my late twenties, and I think I was part of the Friendster generation. MySpace didn't even enter the picture until I wanted to listen to some obscure bands. And then I joined Facebook because my best friend, who went to my college (and graduated a couple of years later), signed up and told me to do the same. I would seriously consider following her off a cliff.

So I have a ton of friends who used Friendster (these accounts are now mostly dormant) and haven't yet made the switch. In fact, people who poked fun at me for joining Facebook three years ago are now signing up in droves.

I do think the issues surrounding MySpace are pretty different from Facebook, so that would've taken the piece further afield.

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Boston: Have you heard of the theory that MySpace tracks to kids from lower socioeconomic classes and/or "outsiders," and Facebook tracks toward more conventional, upper-class kids? Any thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: MySpace v. Facebook: The Class Divide(nytimes.com, June 27)

Reihan Salam: I have, and I think this is the kind of thing that will change over time: MySpace has been around longer, so you have early-adopters and late-adopters. Facebook's demographic is changing too: first it was the preserve of kids who attended residential colleges and universities, already a relatively highbrow slice of the population. Soon, that'll (probably) no longer be the case.

Though it is possible that aesthetic/design differences between the sites will lead to a more persistent difference.

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I will say that I'm a little skeptical about the idea that this snapshot (a temporary class difference in this case) is a serious problem: the digital divide between different ethnic groups in the US has by some measures closed (the overwhelming majority of US homes have a computer now, and a huge and growing number have Internet access), but whites and Asians are more likely to have multiple computers than other groups. This is mostly a class divide. And this divide will also close over time.

We're talking about moving targets, for the most part.

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Flemington, N.J.: Your article really hit the nail on the head ... great topic! Facebook has proven to be amazing for me because I moved around a lot between elementary school, middle school and high school ... so it has given me a convenient way to connect with people. My only complaint is that I've come across a lot of people who are very conscious of social boundaries in person, but totally neglect them on Facebook. And! Regarding relationship status, I've noticed that a lot of Friendster users have converted to Facebook and use it as an online dating site. In an interview, Mark Zuckerberg specifically stated that Facebook a platform that mimicks your real life relationships ... but in light of sites like Friendster and MySpace, many users seem to be leaning towards randomly friending/poking/messaging others in a way that's more of a online dating site. Have you noticed a similar trend?

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Reihan Salam: Well, I think Facebook is a lot less of an online dating site because it's tougher to view profiles of strangers, and I tend to think this is a good thing. I try to put myself in the shoes of a woman, and I wonder: do I really want a bunch of random messages? But that's just me.

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Chantilly, Va.: Are there any legal precedents yet for people who have been denied jobs or fired because of something that appears on Facebook? Many of those people who seem to make the news when this happens always seem to say, "but my Facebook is private." It really isn't—just by the very nature of it. But it would be interesting to know what, if anything, ever happens in court.

Reihan Salam: Oh, it definitely does happen. And my rough sense (this is still evolving) is that information you post on Facebook really can get you fired. But in truth I need to study this a bit more—for example, I certainly hope you can't get fired because your employer discovers that your family is from Tibet via Facebook. That is and ought to be illegal regardless of how the information is "discovered."

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Tempe, Ariz.: Good morning! Very interesting article. I'm a recent college grad and a major, major Facebook junkie. I've found that I have very puritanical rules about friending, and those rules are: Only friend people you are actually friends with. Okay, so I only have one rule. But I'm very serious about it. Atlanta's description of randomly friending people s/he finds attractive just horrifies me to my very core. That's a MySpace attitude. On Facebook, you're supposed to be more real, and that's reinforced by the Mini-Feed. I love the Mini-Feed because I can see what my friends are up to, and it would be totally useless to me if it were giving me news about people I don't know. Having said that—Reihan, have you tried the Scrabulous app? If so, we should play sometime. It is the best ever. Thanks!

Reihan Salam: I tend to agree with you.

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Athens, Ga.: I found your article just the right combination of funny and thoughtful. As a transitioning 24-year-old with nearly 300 "friends" I felt pleased that we had similar perspectives on the benefits and downsides. We probably could be friends. Find me on Facebook! (Just kidding.)

Reihan Salam: Maybe I will!

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Sweden: Hello Salam—your article about Facebook is really good. Like you, even I have been using Facebook, and also Orkut, another Social networking site. I am lucky in a sense that I got to make some real good friends in Orkut—it's just like penpal friendship of olden times. If one gets to meet some good friends on such social networking sites, is that harmful?

Reihan Salam: Not at all—I've done the same thing.

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Reihan Salam: Thanks so much for submitting questions, everyone. And thanks to the good people at washingtonpost.com for giving me a soapbox. I had a wonderful time.