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Perspective

Friends in a Facebook World

For the 35-plus crowd now flooding the website, it's a revelation. It can also be a never-ending high school reunion.

(Illustration by Mark Matcho)
By Neil Swidey
November 30, 2008
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Here's what to expect if you join all the aging Gen-Xers flocking to Facebook, the addictively fun and criminally time-wasting social networking site originally created for college kids. One day, out of nowhere, you'll hear from a high school classmate you haven't even thought about in years. You'll eagerly accept that person's request to be added as a "friend" to your network. You'll immediately engage in a blizzard of messages, as you each resurrect hilarious but long-forgotten hijinks from chemistry lab or detention hall. And then, well . . . nothing.

If this connection took place at a high school reunion, you could deal with the inevitable lull in the conversation by excusing yourself to get a drink. Before long, your reconnection would be put back into deep storage until the next reunion.

That's not possible on Facebook. Because your old classmate is part of your friend network now, you're permanently yoked to each other, receiving an electronic notice every time he shares a link to his friend's gardening blog, or one of his co-workers posts a photo of him from a company outing, or he posts a musing about his favorite breakfast cereals and his vexing battle with lactose intolerance.

Facebook was created four years ago by a Harvard student. But it's been only two years since it opened its gates to those outside the college crowd. Today, people ages 35 to 54 represent about one-fifth of the site's 120 million users, and in the last year, that segment grew nearly six times as fast as the 13-to-34 group.

What's the appeal? Serendipity and reliability. Every time you log on to your Face-book page, you have no idea which blast from your past you might hear from. But there's no question you'll find a flurry of quick updates that reveal not only what your friends are doing, but how they are interacting with other friends. (Of course, this can revive old high school insecurities, whether it's feeling the rush of excitement when a former classmate from the "in" crowd "friends" you, or the dread of indecision when the invite comes from a former member of the "out" crowd.)

I became active on Facebook almost a year ago, primarily as a way to stay connected with a group of high school students who were the subject of a book I had just written. I love the way the site has helped us keep in touch.

And before I lose all the old classmates I've reconnected with, let me say that I'm grateful for the way the site has made it easy for me to keep tabs on them. I don't have to justify the time for a phone call or hunt for an e-mail address. I can just fire off a quick message, post a public comment on their "wall," or simply look at their interactions with others.

But there are other people for whom updates every year or two or 10 would suffice, and I suspect they feel the same way about me. Yet that's not the way it works here.

"With Facebook, it's like the old days, where you grew up and stayed in the same village," says B.J. Fogg, who directs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and is editing a book about Facebook. "We're back to where relationships don't vanish."

That can be good, but Facebook can also hamper our ability to manage social contacts. "It assumes all relationships are equal," says Fogg, who has learned to be very selective in accepting new friend requests. "If I say yes to someone I haven't talked to in 20 years, it dilutes my ability to create tighter relationships with those who really matter to me."

I've received some friend requests from former colleagues who then ignored the "how's everything with you?" messages I sent out of courtesy. For these people, I've learned the joys of the de-friending function.

Clearly, they were interested only in racking up higher friend counts or building up their professional networking circles.

Fogg and a Japanese researcher conducted a cross-cultural study of Facebook and Mixi, its equivalent in Japan. Facebook users had an average of 281 friends in their network and aspired to increase that to an average of 317. Mixi users averaged 58 friends and aspired to decrease that to an average of 49. To the Japanese, a tighter circle of friends ensures that the designation actually means something.

It's a factor that complicates Fogg's opinion of the site. "I love Facebook," he says, "and I hate Facebook."

Sort of like high school reunions.

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine and the author of The Assist (theassist.net), now out in paperback. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

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