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Back to high skool

"Do you have a Facebook page?" one of my friends asked last week. Suppressing the desire to say, "Why? You never talk to me anyway," I simply said: "No." I have a Web site, a personal blog, all the journalism I do; I participate in at least six online communities, two IRC channels, and have email and four IM clients open on my desktop at all times. When people say "Facebook", "LinkedIn", or "MySpace" I sound like a little kid being forced to wear a sweater: "Do I have to…?" I mean, what percentage of my computer needs to belong to other people?

Besides, all these social networks really miss the point. They want you to say who your friends are, for a very small value of the word "friend". Hey, guys, these aren't friends; these are people I happen to know. They're only friends in the sense that if you meet someone in Kyrzgystan that you once worked with 15 years ago in London that you couldn't stand you fall upon them with glad cries of delight just because they aren't a stranger who can't speak English and are unarmed.

Starting with seven AIM buddies Facebook could find, the system started throwing up the names of people it thought I might know. And yes, some of those names are definitely familiar. So I added a few of them, randomly chosen. Two minutes later, an IM: "Did you ask to be my friend on Facebook?" The only sane person.

Then the system offers me "friends of friends".

This is not what I need: more tenuous connections to people to whom I'll have something to say once every five years. And that's why these social networks are wrong. You shouldn't be able to specify friends. You should be able to specify *enemies*. And the specification should be public. Keep your friends close – and your enemies closer.

Calling these things "social networks" makes them sound much grander and more grown-up than they really are. What they are is high school. With cliques and mysteriously popular people who are total jerks and mysteriously unpopular people to whom everyone is mean who are really nice and honorable. (Well, my school was never like that, or maybe I was too disconnected to notice, but all the TV writers seem to have gone to schools that were. I was unpopular, and there was no mystery about it: I was raised by wolves.) High school relationships are all about knowing who is enemies with whom. You can recover if, by mistake, you say something disparaging about someone to their best friend. You can't recover if you tell your friend's best friend's secret to that best friend's sworn enemy.

Your only chance there is that the enemy will pick you up as a friend; the rest are lost to you. My enemy's enemy is my friend: now there's a powerful basis for a friendship. And on a properly constructed social network, that prospective friend would be clearly visible to you.

But under the saccharine rule of Facebook, my friend's friend isn't my enemy (which would be useful to know). In a lot of cases it's someone I've never met. And given that half the people labeled as "friends" aren't really friends at all (you know who you are not), it's probably someone I wouldn't even like if I did meet them.

Plus, some of the people who I really do know best don't want to be public about it (well, would you?), so I can't tag them as friends, because then other people will see them in my list and might start asking questions. How helpful is that? Why isn't there a "secret friends" option? Have the people who run Facebook never heard of adultery?

I also have two "friends" who are just people I clicked on by mistake and sent the request before I realized. And they accepted? Is this like negative feedback on eBay, where you don't dare say anything bad about a delinquent seller because they might retaliate by trashing your hard-earned 100 percent positive reputation? Or are they "But he was my friend on Facebook for years, and he seemed like such a nice, normal guy – I can't believe it" people?

But, you know, I'm socially gregarious. Pleasant to a fault. Sweet. Kind. Gentle. Good. The kind of person anyone would want to have in their inbook. Or inbox. Whatever. Like Bugs Bunny. As long as they didn't actually know me in high school, I don't see why they shouldn't pretend to be my friend. It does seem to me curious, though, that so many of the digerati are not more embarrassed to admit they have a Facebook page. I mean, it's pathetic, all this trying to look cool and keep up with the teenagers. Clearly, anyone who would openly claim as a friend someone on Facebook is someone I do not want to admit to knowing. Groucho would never friend me on Facebook.

And the actual friend who asked me to join? Fuhgeddaboudit. He's got a common name and a habit of not specifying any details. He could be any of about 200 people. Should I friend them all, just to see?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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