I am brave (behind my computer screen)

I love to observe and “study” human interaction. What’s really interesting is to watch how insecurities affect body language, tone of voice, and behavior, especially in social settings. And since the rise of social networks, I’ve always been curious how others handle potentially awkward situations in these online social spaces. The big difference I see is that online, all of sudden people are brave. People you only sort of know or knew, who would’t even look you in the eye or say “hi” on the street, all of sudden want to be your “friend”, want to know what you’re up to, and actually comment on your life.

I recently got a friend request from someone I knew in junior high and high school, and if memory serves, she annoyed the hell out of me. This led me to not always be very nice to her. I’ll be the first to admit I have the potential to be a total asshole, and when I was a cocky, figuring-the-world-and-relationships-out-teenager, I didn’t have a whole lot of tact or patience at times. Now with this particular girl, I don’t think I ever made her cry, but I know we weren’t friends. We were in band together and we didn’t exactly ignore each other…but maybe it was a mutual annoyance that sometimes flourished into “words”. Anyway, here she is now, 13 years later, sending me a friend request on Facebook. Unlike many people, I usually only have friends on Facebook that are actually my friends, or are people I care about, because I don’t have time for fake relationships anymore. In fact, long before Facebook or even Friendster (remember that one?) came out, I had started weeding people out of my life that were just too much work to keep relationships with.

So I put a post up to my Facebook friends and asked what they’d do. There were basically two approaches that were recommended: ignore the friend request or add her as a friend to a list that doesn’t show any updates (so she would be my “friend”, but she wouldn’t see anything). I followed up asking if sending a note would be an option, asking why she’d want to be “friends” after all these years (and after our not-so-great relationship). No one really liked that idea.

As many of you know, I’m sort of on a quest for an authentic online representation of myself (see Social Censorship). I mean, if we’re expanding our social circles beyond face-to-face, why should our online self be so different from what people get face-to-face? Why mask or mute aspects of ourselves, just because we can? Why not just use social spaces online to amplify our our true selves? Of course, our persona would translate accordingly. We all act a certain way with coworkers (which could be one list in Facebook where you wouldn’t post that Onion article about how many pounds of pubic hair are being shaved this Valentines Day), and we all act a certain way with our close friends (another list in Facebook where that Onion article would be happy to live).

That being said, I don’t feel comfortable just ignoring friend requests. I’m not the type of person that will pretend I didn’t hear you if you say “hi” to me in person. Sure, I’ll avoid you if I see you across the street and I don’t like you, but only if I know you haven’t seen me first. If I know I’ve been spotted, I won’t run away. I’ll probably even be nice now that I’m not an ignorant, cocky, insensitive teenager. Also, for the people I’ve gotten friend requests from that actually were friends that just sort of faded away, but I’m interested in what they’ve been up to, I accept the request but always follow up with a note saying, “Hey, wow, been a while. Good to hear from you. What’s up?!” as a way of saying, “Glad you found me and I care about this relationship we just (re)started, even if it is online”.

I think we sort of owe it to each other as humans to be respectful of one another, even from behind our computer screens. We shouldn’t do or say things online that we wouldn’t do or say face-to-face. Sure, maybe it’s easier to work up the courage to reconnect with people electronically, which I think is fine, but then don’t be afraid to follow it up with a conversation. Don’t just friend someone and let it fall by the wayside with your other 543 “friends”. What’s the point of that? How do we benefit from having hundreds of connections that we either block or hide from? On the other hand, don’t “friend” people you don’t really want to have a relationship with. Save that person the agony from over-thinking it (as I have here).