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3 practices that restore the meaning of friendship on Facebook

by Alex in | | | |

Do you insert audible air quotes when you talk about your Facebook “friends”? If so, it’s time to strip away those air quotes and get serious about your online friends, on Facebook and beyond.

That’s part of the commitment to embracing your real online life that I’ll be talking about tomorrow at TEDxVictoria. My TEDx talk jumps off from a blog post I originally wrote for Harvard Business Review about the 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life. So this seems like a good moment to return to the series I started then, fleshing out each of the 10 reasons.

Today I want to tackle the idea of real friendship:

When you treat your Facebook connections as real friends instead of “friends”, you stop worrying about how many you have and focus on how well you treat them.

There are three essential practices that will help you restore some value to the meaning of friendship, however Facebook has cheapened it.

  1. Separate your Facebook brand from your Facebook profileIf you use Facebook for professional purposes, you may be focused on racking up your friend count because you use Facebook as a professional communications, p.r. or marketing channel. Maybe your work would benefit from a big Facebook following, but if so, create a separate Facebook page for professional purposes. (If you’re not creating the page for a specific business or organization, you can choose “artist, band or public figure” and choose the most appropriate profile type for you.)  Use this page as your hub for Facebook outreach and marketing, and use its URL anywhere you’d normally promote your Facebook profile: your blog, your business card or your other social network profiles. Once you’ve got a Facebook presence that’s designed for professional use, you can reclaim your personal profile as the realm of real friendship.
  2. Set a standard for friend requestsEvery time you accept a Facebook friend request from someone you don’t know, or don’t know well, or maybe don’t even like, you’re cheapening the notion of friendship. If you want your online friendships to feel real to you, you’ve got to treat a friend request as if it actually means something. What it means is up to you: set clear criteria for who you will accept as a friend, whether you limit it to people who would put their lives on the line for you, or simply to anyone who knows you well enough to see you in your pjs. Only accept people who meet your criteria, and you’ll be well on the way to restoring some meaning to the notion of friendship.
  3. Make different friend lists for different groups of friendsEvery friendship is different: you may be very close to the woman in the next cubicle at work, but that doesn’t mean you’d tell her the same things you’d share with your best friend from high school. Online, you’ve got an even greater variety of relationships to deal with: in addition to all the usual variations of work friends, old friends, neighbours, etc., you’re dealing with the nuances of some friendships that may exist entirely online, others that date to a long offline history, and some that are true on/offline hybrids. Depending on the nature of each relationship, you’re going to be comfortable sharing different updates, jokes and pictures. So create a list of friends for each kind of content you’d like to share, or each of level of intimacy:  a list for people with whom you want to share family news, a list for the friends who actually like your Star Wars puns, a list for people with whom you’ll share your raciest stories. (Find out how to create a list here.)

Taken together, these three practices will allow you to become more selective about who you accept as a Facebook friend, and to be more targeted about who gets to read or see what. Most important, it will allow you to restore a sense of integrity to the word “friend”, to get rid of those air quotes, and to embrace your online friendships as very, very real.

First posted on November 18,2011

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