Since its launch in March, the popular social-networking service Friendster.com has grown to include 1.7 million members. Friendsters are the friends of your friends, and your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends—a collection of people linked through four (or more) degrees of separation.
What’s the point of it all? According to the site, Friendster can be used to “meet new people to date,” to “make new friends,” and, just in case you associate with the socially inept, “to help your friends make new friends.” Users sift through Friendster profiles, reading testimonials and looking at touched-up photos in search of that special someone.
But at Harvard, Friendster is often less about finding that special someone and more about self-indulgence. After all, we’re all type-A, out-do-your-neighbor overachievers, and Friendster seems like a great way to quantify popularity, or at least to validate self-worth by out-friending peers. But what do we do when people we actively dislike, want nothing to do with or otherwise cannot stomach ask to be our friendsters? Do we accept those odious individuals to up our friendster count or keep them safely unfreindstered?
I asked a few of my online inner circle. Over half of the respondents recommended that I always accept friend requests. “I just bite the bullet and let them be my friend,” says Sarah, a Friendster member since March 2003. “I’m a wimp like that.” You’re not a wimp, sweet Sarah, you’re a “friend whore”—a person who shamelessly allows anyone to enter her e-ranks.
In instances like Sarah’s, we justify accepting a friend we can’t stand with social etiquette. We insist it’s rude to reject someone. This person has taken the time to invite us as a friendster, and it is common courtesy to accept. Besides, what is so bad about having someone’s picture linked to your profile on a silly website that people visit when mindlessly procrasterbating?
A lot. Accepting your undesirable acquaintances makes it look like you’re happy with the relationship. It’s an easy trap to walk into—you get to avoid slighting your peer and expand your web of friendsters. But if the person you dislike attends Harvard—and is in your House, active in your extracurricular, or in section with you—your online relationship will inevitably spill over into real life. Your unfortunate acquaintance might attempt to strengthen the “friendship,” or, even worse, try to make you more than just a “friend.” And getting rid of your even more annoying friendster just gets harder.
The basis of any relationship, online or otherwise, should be honesty. Just level with your online acquaintances. And if honesty just isn’t your thing, you can always be evasive. As Jill, a Friendster user since August 2003 says, “I have a ‘friend’ that I just never add. I keep him waiting on the request list while I approve other new people who I actually like. Maybe he’ll get the message when my friend count keeps increasing without him.” Don’t let your quest to be the best trap you in a web of unwanted friendsters.
----—William Lee Adams is a magazine editor.