Who are these people and why do they want to be my friend?

Deciding where to draw the line on Facebook friend requests is a modern-day sticky wicket.

ID Analytics, Inc. an online risk management firm, surveyed 387 people who are on social networks, and nearly nine out of 10 people said it was not rude to refuse or ignore a friend request.

But according to other new research, denied or ignored friend requests are a large source of hurt feelings.

So we don’t think it’s rude to reject people, but we’re hurt when other people reject us.

We’re so confused.

The basic problem is that the Facebook definition of “friend” is different from the real-world version. I think of the real world as friends, and the FB world as Friends. Maybe with a little TM next to it.

For most of us, “friend” in the real world denotes a level of intimacy. A Facebook Friend is more ambiguous; it can be a day-to-day connection, a person you met once, or someone with whom you share mutual friends. Sometimes you make Friends of strangers. These people either integrate into your Facebook world, or drop from sight and mind, becoming no more than a little face among a lot of other little faces.

Further research by ID Analytics  found that five percent of people will accept any old Friend request that turns up. This is not safe, and that’s what ID Analytics focuses on, but what are the sociological implications of calling strangers friends? Or even Friends?

These are considerations technologists like Mark Zuckerberg apparently never gave much thought to, since it was simpler to just abuse the already well-understood word “friend” in the social network he spawned,” writes Dr. John Grohol, Psych Central founder and editor-in-chief.

Ah, but who knew all this would happen? Like the World Wide Web itself, Facebook is a social experiment that raises questions we’ve never had to consider before and that could not be foreseen.

Accepting a Facebook friend is easy. One click. But then, though you may never hear from that person again, you are allowing access to an awful lot of yourself. I consider Facebook a bit of a performance, but even so, when I think about it, I’m a little spooked by the thought of stranger-Friends lurking in the shadows and watching.

And besides, although rejecting people also is just one click, it’s not always as easy. We haven’t figured out the rules.

Is rejecting a friend request from a stranger the equivalent of snubbing a proffered handshake? Does the rejection feels more stinging because accepting the “friendship” requires so little effort? What about friends of friends? Is there a social obligation involved?

Friend requests from strangers–even friends of friends–sit in my mailbox, sometimes for weeks, until I get around to vetting them. Does this person have thousands of Friends? (Automatic reject.) Do we have mutual Friends? Are those mutual Friends actual real-world friends of mine? I look for commonalities and red flags in what I can see of the person’s profile. (I employ profiling when vetting profiles.) Finally, I go by gut. More often than not these days, I decline requests from strangers.

People you know in the real world but dislike present a different quandary. Do you accept a friend request just to avoid making an enemy? What if you don’t care to hear this person’s comments? (I haven’t got around to dividing people into groups with different access; I’m too busy keeping up with the ever-changing security settings.) Research finds that we are not much different online than we are off. Often I find that the same things that annoy me about a  person in the real world show up on Facebook, too.

Sociologists known that proximity is a big player in real-world friendship. But we are all proximate all the time, in the virtual world. And this brings an entirely new dimension to choosing friends and Friends.

What are the new rules? What are your rules?

Photo by Dan Taylor via Flicker (Creative Commons).