The difference between Facebook friends and real friends: A case study

My object of study, the 21-year old beauty who I call EmmaFB, has 921 Friends on Facebook. Her friends are from all the phases of her life, from pre- and primary school, high school, university, going out, friends of friends, and family members.

This range of friends has been confirmed by international studies to be the typical set of friends a young person has. As EmmaFB told me in an interview I conducted with her, she goes out a lot, meets people and then is what she calls “invited” by them on Facebook the next day. She does not think that having 900+ friends is that many, even though it is way more than the 300-400 which studies show to be the average for this age group.

Interestingly, she has a very good idea of how many friends each of her close friends have, for example she knows that she has 230 mutual friends with her best friend.

When she started Facebooking at the age of 15 or 16 she admits that she wanted a “trillion” friends and she did “go and invite a whole bunch of people” to get her “numbers up”. Now she wouldn’t mind getting to a 1 000 (before her best friend does) “just to get there”, but makes it clear that as a matter of principle she would not accept anyone she is not really ‘friends’ with.

The term “friends” is contentious: one of the first objections Facebook critics have is that Facebook friendships, especially when one has so many friends, can’t possibly be ‘real’. When Emma FB says she doesn’t accept people that she is not “friends” with, she means she doesn’t accept anyone she doesn’t have an offline social context for. If she can’t remember meeting them at the club the night before, or if she has no mutual friends with them on Facebook to jog her memory as to where she might know them from, she leaves their request pending, rather than rejecting them outright. She has about 50 pending friend requests. This also seems to be typical behaviour. In a similar study conducted at a London university, most students said that they “would let the request go unanswered rather than reject it”. Most thought it was a complete no-no and accepted all friend requests, others had them “pending” forever, and some only rejected requests if they did not know or disliked the person and “could not envision talking to in the future”.

In the words of EmmaFB: Facebook is not about the fact that you have to be “really friends with the person (offline), it’s a way of socialising with people you wouldn’t normally have contact with” she says. Facebook is seen as an effortless and informal way of staying in touch. To her, a ‘friend’ is really an acquaintance worth remembering.

Does it matter who requests who first? Emma FB thinks she gets requested more than she requests in return, as she does not “invite just anyone”. The London study found that it does become a status issue: there seems to be more status in being asked than in being the one doing the asking. When Emma FB does request a friend, she makes it clear that she doesn’t sit around to see if her request has been accepted or not.

Because Emma FB does have so many Facebook friends that she is not close friends with, she has become very private about her info and wall posts on Facebook. Studies report that most young people realize the problems attached to multiple audiences, and often try to manage this by controlling their information on Facebook, especially in terms of personal details.

EmmaFB has a great aunt, who she does discuss her personal life with in person. This aunt is now her Facebook friend and sees things on the social network that she would not usually be told. Surprisingly EmmaFB forgets that her aunt is her friend, and is rudely reminded of the fact when she comments on a photograph, or even worse, brings up something she saw on Facebook when she sees her at family occasions. Her immediate reaction to that is “I don’t really want you to know”, but afterwards it does not bother her all that much.

When I ask her who she does imagine to be looking at her Facebook, she says her close friends, her boyfriend; the same people whose Facebook pages she visits. It is interesting how EmmaFB realizes on one level that she has a vast and not always ideal audience, but on another level prefers to imagine her Facebook to be for her ideal audience only.

How does one tell if someone is a ‘real friend’ or just a worthy acquaintance /audience member? In the earlier days of social networking, applications such as Top Friends could be displayed on one’s MySpace or Facebook page. As the name indicates, it listed and displayed one’s ‘top friends’. Danah Boyd discusses how this app dramatically affected teenagers’ lives: “There are social consequences in publicly announcing one’s friends, best friends, and bestest friends. Feelings are hurt when individuals find that someone they feel close to does not reciprocate”.

The fact that EmmaFB had this application active for a time seems to indicate that she does feel a need to define who her “real” friends are. She tells me that she believes that a person is judged by their friends.

One way to possibly spot her “real” friends is by looking at those she appears with regularly in photographs. She declares that it’s not important who she’s with in photos, and that she would not untag herself because of the people she is with. She explains that she has had fall-outs with friends over the years, but has never untagged herself in a picture because of it.

A better way to judge her “real” friends is by looking at whose wall she writes on, or who make offline arrangements with her on her wall. These comments are not deep and personal thoughts, but mostly allude to offline arrangements in a familiar or affectionate tone. Not everyone gets to write “miss you, lunch tomorrow?” on her wall.

Out of her massive amount of friends she will make specific social arrangements with only a few, this makes them ‘special’ and this closer affiliation is then publicly demonstrated on the wall. “Real friends” make comments relating to their private offline activities on a public forum, to stake ownership and demonstrate alliances. EmmaFB affirms this by adding: “Maybe the wall is a bit like publicly letting other people know as well, not consciously, that she is a very good friend and that I do want to keep in contact”. So, if you do not have a ‘real’ lunch date coming up soon, the bad news is that you are probably just an audience member.



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