Facebook Gets Frisky With Your Most Feared “Friends”

The other weekend I went to a housewarming party that an editor I know was throwing in Prospect Heights. It was one of those parties where everyone there is someone you’ve seen at another media party but never hung out with one-on-one and the conversations tend to veer toward industry gossip (stuff like: “Well, I’m considering taking the editor-at-large position”), what I like to call byline stalking (“I loved your profile of Chelsea Clinton, but your blog post on your corner deli was hysterical”) and not-so-subtle undermining (“That Web site seems like a really good place for you right now”).

One woman, who is always wearing the types of dresses I wish I owned because they seem perfectly suited to media parties—simple, black, vaguely vintagey-looking, knee-length, very flattering—made a beeline for me.

“Hey! So, um, Facebook thinks we should be friends!” she said. “I mean, friends on Facebook. But I didn’t want you to think that I was only friend-requesting you because Facebook said I should, so I didn’t ask you yet, and …”

I was confused. “What do you mean, Facebook thinks we should be friends?”

“Oh! Well, you know that thing on your Facebook page that says something like, You might know so-and-so?

I shook my head. “I haven’t been on in a few days.”

“Oh, O.K., well, I’m totally going to request you as a friend but I don’t want you to think that it’s only because Facebook thought I should, because I was going to anyway, and—”

A few minutes later I went over to talk to another writer, who immediately said, “Facebook keeps suggesting friends of yours who I should be friends with!”

What the hell was going on?

A couple weeks ago, Facebook quietly introduced a new feature, “People You May Know” that, in essence, suggests other people you may want to be friends with. From what I can gather (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment), Facebook seems to cull your networks and figure out who your friends are also friends with. In theory, this sounds fine, if a little pushy. In practice, it seems really pushy.

The notion of “If you like John, you’ll also like Jane” works on Netflix (if you liked His Girl Friday, you’ll love A Streetcar Named Desire!) and Amazon and iTunes—indeed, anything media-related seems legit. But with people it can just seem … creepy. And, in fact, invasive.

“The annoying and retarded thing about Facebook is that it’s supposed to be a ‘social networking’ site, but they miss the obvious thing about being social: Most people just freaking hate some of their dearest friends’ friends,” said writer Ian Spiegelman, who is 34. “No one can stand everyone who runs in their same circles. And Facebook just keeps shoving it in my face that so many people I trust and admire are at least nominally friends with people I find to be reprehensibly not admirable and totally untrustworthy.”

In other words, Facebook is forcing friendship Venn diagrams to intersect in, potentially, the wrong ways. My preppy tennis partner (if I had one) is not likely to get along with my co-worker who lives in Williamsburg and goes to indie rock shows every night, just because they’re friends with me. What this feature does so clumsily is that it takes a kind of wild, random shot in the dark that the things that make you friends with one person will necessarily make you friends with their friends, even though that is almost always not the case.

For example, one of my close friends from college—we’ll call him Matt—is an architect, and, well, I find many of his architect friends kind of uptight. Also, they only want to talk about architecture! (One might argue that writers only want to bitch about editors, which might be why Matt’s friends have never been interested in pursuing a friendship with me, either.) I’ve known his friends for at least five years now, and the only times I see them are at Matt’s parties; we’ve never felt compelled to “get drinks” or “get lunch” or “get coffee” (or even pretend to “get drinks/lunch/coffee” in that way in which neither party will, in fact, call the other, but it makes everyone feel better to pretend that they will).

Becoming friends with people is a funny thing; it’s predicated on some seemingly irrational mix of common interests + sense of humor + proximity + style, all of which is dependent upon some kind of chemistry taking hold, plus effort on at least one person’s part. In some ways, it seems natural that Facebook would try to match people up; after all, isn’t that what some online dating sites do? You’re matched up with people who some computer formula has decided you might not only get along with, but also be attracted to.

But maybe that’s part of the problem; what seems to work in the realm of dating might just seem weird in the realm of friendship, or even networking. (Besides, as a 31-year-old online columnist put it, “I have actual friends I don’t really want to ‘friend’ in the Facebook sense. Why would I want to invite these total strangers into my world?”)

It also raises some other delicate issues, namely, maybe people aren’t friends with their friends’ friends for a concrete reason. “I was just talking with a friend about this,” said Katie Baker, 27, an assistant at Newsweek. “Facebook keeps recommending this guy who she used to kind of date, and then they had a huge falling out and she won’t talk to him anymore and he occasionally stalks her. So her response is kind of like, ‘Fuck you, Facebook!’”

“I’ve been feeling like somehow Facebook knows to recommend the very people whose existence I try to forget,” said a 30-year-old writer who lives in Park Slope. “There’s the ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s girlfriend who always inexplicably hated me; there’s the middle-aged writer who asked me out even though I knew he lived with his girlfriend; there’s the girl I went to college with who wears men’s ties every day and who still seems to think that makes her cool and quirky. In real life, I’m friends with none of these people, and the fact that Facebook recommends us to be ‘friends’ only underscores how ludicrous the meaning of friendship is on social networking sites.”

Indeed, this new feature seems to be raising more than a little anxiety among New York’s notoriously neurotic media set, if only because for many of them, this is their first experience on a social networking site—Friendster was too new, too untested, for many of the writers and editors who now carefully cultivate friends like so many high-profile bylines; MySpace too adolescent and, let’s face it, déclassé; LinkedIn too straight-laced marketing-consultanty—and now, to be reminded of the other prominent people in their field who they’re not friends with, and yet, their friends, seemingly inexplicably, are—well, it’s all just a bit too much.

“It messes with the whole evolution of your social networking identity,” said one 32-year-old writer who lives in Boerum Hill. “There’s a period at the very beginning of your Facebook life, after you first sign up, when you’re madly friend-ing everyone in your address book. It’s the needy phase: You’re trying to establish and legitimize yourself as a user. Then you mature to a more placid state—yo
u stop accepting application requests. Maybe you even stop playing Scrabulous. It’s a relaxing time.

“But this new feature makes you feel needy all over again,” this writer continued. “Its infernal machine logic taunts you with people who could, theoretically, be your friends—but aren’t. Your page once served to document the extent of your social support network. Now it advertises the people you never connected to—the friends you don’t have.”