Social networking guilt

Facebook makes me feel guilty. It’s not because the pop­u­lar social net­work­ing site takes bites out of my work­day, and it has noth­ing to do with my self-initiated com­pul­sion to post news items for my friends to ignore (while they chat back and forth, lament­ing the end of Scrabulous as they knew it). No, my guilt comes solely from a lit­tle link in the right-hand col­umn: People you may know.

Now, I’m not a Facebook guru. The site became pop­u­lar after I had already grad­u­ated with a master’s degree, so my 180 or so friends pales in com­par­i­sion to some of the friend tal­lies I’ve seen on freshmen’s pages. I don’t add appli­ca­tions willy-nilly, either. Compared to the application-crammed, trailer trash, MySpace-like pages I’ve seen on Facebook recently, mine is decid­edly spar­tan, and I con­ceit­edly think myself evolved because of that.

In fact, about the only game I play on Facebook is the friend col­lec­tion game: try­ing to recon­nect with as many for­got­ten or nearly for­got­ten friends as I can. The rules are sim­ple. Add only peo­ple you really know or peo­ple you have really met. The chal­lenge of my lit­tle game comes in track­ing down peo­ple who I haven’t seen in years, peo­ple who have changed their names or moved away to dif­fer­ent places I know not of. The mys­tery makes this game an enter­tain­ing foren­sic chal­lenge; I imag­ine ana­lysts at the CIA play sim­i­lar games when track­ing down spies or ter­ror­ists, and it gives me a lit­tle nerdy thrill.

So imag­ine my delight when Facebook intro­duced the “People you may know” link. It imme­di­ately allowed me to add friends I didn’t know were on Facebook. I’m not sure of how that page works, but imag­ine it goes some­thing like this. I have friend A and friend B. Both A and B are friends with C, so maybe I know C too. And voila, a page­ful of help­ful suggestions.

But since then, my list of peo­ple I may know has grown thin. I now find myself hop­ing to make con­tact with another friend with­out the tool, or hop­ing that my friends add new friends, thereby shuf­fling the deck and adding new faces to the peo­ple I may know page.

But that’s not what makes me feel guilty. Amid all this social net­work­ing in front of my com­puter screen, I have noted that some of the faces on my might-know page are famil­iar to me. I know the names. I heard them around cam­pus, either because my friends men­tioned them or because they were involved in some­thing par­tic­u­larly social (in the real world sense). Yet I never met these peo­ple. I don’t know them.

I have to think that Facebook is sub­tly, hope­fully unin­ten­tion­ally, sham­ing me. Had I gone to one more party or attended one more social event or vol­un­teered my time for some­thing worth­while, I might have met these peo­ple. But as it was, I was an English major, mean­ing that I kept to myself and my library — an intro­vert of some significance.

I could add these peo­ple as Facebook friends. They’d prob­a­bly even accept the invi­ta­tion since my name prob­a­bly floated around their ears in the same way theirs floated around mine (I wasn’t com­pletely clois­tered through­out col­lege, you know) and bea­cuse that’s how social net­work­ing sites work. You accept some friends you don’t know that well because it can’t hurt to add them to your list, right?

Something about that rubs me the wrong way though. Can I add a friend I don’t really know, some­one I’ve never really met? Something about that seems morally wrong to me. Plus, there’s the pos­si­bil­ity that they reject my invi­ta­tion, say­ing qui­etly to them­selves as they click the “deny” but­ton, “Who’s this guy?” It’s not like Facebook sends you an e-mail to tell you that some­one has rejected your advance, but the mes­sage comes across. I don’t think I could stand that kind of Information Age rejec­tion, where your friendly advances dis­ap­pear into the cloud and are never heard from again.

It’s a wicked game I have invented for myself, full of inter­pre­ta­tion, intu­ition and sub­tlety. I think the CIA spies would be proud.