Home > Facebook, social computing > Strategies for Facebook Friends

Strategies for Facebook Friends

People have different strategies for which Facebook friend requests to accept. Some people consider themselves “public figures” and accept all friend requests. For example, I believe Larry Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and Howard Rheingold fall into this category.  Other people, like my grad students, keep their group of Facebook friends relatively small. Some admit to saying yes to friend requests from people they don’t know well, but then a few times a year going through their friends list and unfriending everyone they don’t know well. (The unfriended person probably won’t even notice.)

My own strategy has shifted over time. I have generally tried sending unfamiliar people a message that says:

Hi!  Thanks for the add! Sorry to be forgetful, but can you remind me how we know eachother?

Most of the time, those messages aren’t answered and I ignore the request a few days later. Sometimes the reply will be, “I just admire your work,” “we were at summer camp together in 1979,” or (my favorite) “I hired you for some consulting work ten years ago.”  That last one was real, and makes me hesitate to say no to these things!

Another common case is someone who  appears to be a legitimate researcher in my field who I don’t know well. I vaguely recognize the name, their profile seems to have a legit institutional affiliation.  Case in point, some time ago Sheila Cotten added me as a friend on Facebook. I didn’t know Sheila, but she seemed really to be a sociologist, who was friends with lots of sociologists I know. I said yes. I saw a bit of her on Facebook. A few weeks ago, the annual sociology meeting was held in Atlanta, and I went. Sheila was there, and she immediately mentioned Facebook when we met in person.  I heard three for four talks by Sheila and her students, and they were so cool!  And they are only a 90-minute drive away in Birmingham.   I’m going to invite them to come give a talk some time. This is the positive side of being relatively open to new Facebook friends.

But the negative side of being open is growing. Lots of people just say yes to all friend requests (which is a legitimate strategy), so sometimes lately I’ve looked at a request,  seen that the person is friends with 13 people in my field I know, and said yes. And it’s turned out to be a fake.  It just happens that lots of my colleagues just say yes to all requests. I wasn’t sure why a fakester would want to friend me. Identity theft is always a risk, though I keep personal info like my birthday hidden on Facebook. Beyond that, I’ve seen two Facebook friend scams recently. One was someone who added me and later started posting porn to her profile. The second was scarier. I got an email from an old MIT acquaintance who I’ll call John Random, from an address like john.rdm@gmail.com. The mail said he was stranded in London with no money or credit cards because his wallet was taken–could I please help?  As you might guess, John is my real friend but his real email address is john.random@gmail.com. The gmail with the abbreviated last name was available, and scammers claimed it. The scammers friended John on Facebook and sent mail to all of his Facebook friends from a real-seeming variation on his email address.

Over the last week, I’ve gotten six creepy friend requests. They’re all from people who claim they went to Harvard, but I don’t recognize their names. They’re all friends with the cartoon character Alfred E. Neumann. And most of them have their relationship status as “widowed.” They have different variations on things they share in common with me–some college, some college and year, some also city of birth. If this is from a researcher trying to see what criteria make people more likely to accept a fake friend request, your IRB will be getting an angry letter when I find you. This is invasive and creepy and not OK.  More likely, it’s a scammer planning to john.rdm me in the future.

All of this leads me to ask an obvious question: why am I on Facebook again? What value does it have for me? The most immediate answer is that I genuinely enjoy keeping up with former students. I know that Andrea Forte is doing well in Philadelphia. I know that Rodney Walker still is watching football and golf, and I can chat about them with him. Those things are important to me, and a bunch of comments from people I hardly know get in the way.

Bottom line: I’ve had it. If I don’t recognize you and can’t immediately see that you’re someone in my field, the answer is no. I need to change my strategy and make Facebook friends be more like real friends.

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Categories: Facebook, social computing
  1. August 30, 2010 at 9:22 am

    The “stranded in London” ploy must be popular! It happened on the corpus linguistics list just a few weeks ago, resulting in a bunch of linguists theorizing about what the scammer’s native language might be.

    Do you think it targets academics particularly?

  2. beki70
    August 30, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Great post! I’m basically in the “do I know you” category, although sometimes I think I may have ignored requests from people I really did know once. I wish was better with names, but I sat on a friend request for a while because I couldn’t place the name. Some time later, I was “oh, yeah, kindergarten” and friended. Fortunately people will start using FB in kindergarten so they won’t have this problem 😉 You are making me think about the birthday, I recently went all public, but that was more about telling myself that I should be comfortable admitting my age. Now I’m wondering…

  3. August 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    The other downside of too many people on your friends list is that your newsfeed can easily clog up with messages and updates you’re not that interested in. So, do you then unfriend the researcher you met at a conference who does really interesting work but likes to post 10 times a day? Essentially, the more people on your list, the less valuable the site becomes in helping you keep in touch with everyone…

  4. August 30, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I have now heard several stories about people who have sent and/or accepted friend requests solely so they can click the cow clicks of more cow clickers.

  5. August 30, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Another – somewhat related – issue is that of the content that is shared on FB. ?Young researchers (i.e. those of us who are grad students or do not have tenure…) that are connected to their senior peers have to be extremely careful not only in regards to who they friend but also to what they post. It should be quirky and appealing, smart but with just a certain measure of controversial appeal, and never, never mundane, since every FB friend can be future employer or at least someone “who knows your name” and put in a good word for you. Content-reputation-friendship management strategies of budding scientists… I think I smell a research topic here.

    • August 31, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Good points Dana! Of course everyone always has to be careful…. The most senior person might or might not get invited to give a keynote, might or might not win the lifetime achievement award, etc based on the kind of impression they make. But there are certain critical junctures (before getting hired for your first job, as a pre-tenure faculty member) where it’s even more delicate.

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