Ask any Facebook user how many friends they have in real life versus how many they have on Facebook, and there will likely be a large discrepancy, often by a (multiplicative) factor of 100 or more. How does one explain this phenomenon? The most plausible explanation would seem to be that the definition of “friend” changes between the online and offline contexts. In order to investigate whether or not this was the case I interviewed two of my roommates, both Facebook users, as well as drew from my own experiences as a user of the service. What I found was that concepts of friendship were largely the same in both contexts, and that the discrepancy arose not because of the definition of the word and but because of the way it is used, which I will explain shortly. However, the different dynamics of online and offline environments do give rise to a number of interesting differences, such as the need to explicitly acknowledge relationships online, that can create conflict if the two parties do not agree on their status.
So if the definition of friendship is largely the same online and off as I claim, why do most users of Facebook have significantly more online friends? The natural hypothesis to make is that the definition of “friend” on Facebook encompasses a much larger set of people, but based on my research I found this to be false. I think the discrepancy arises simply from the way the question is asked: “How many friends do you have on Facebook versus offline?” Spencer and Pahl note in figure 3.1 that people use the term “friend” to refer to a wide range of people, including a relationship as limited as an acquaintance. When I say “refer,” I mean in the sense of “my friend Bob gave me these tickets.” Bob may only be an acquaintance, but most people feel using that word is unnatural, and so they default to “friend.” However, when you ask someone directly how many friends they have, they generally exclude “simple friendships” such as acquaintances and only include “complex friendships.” This is because, based on personal experience, including one’s acquaintances and claiming to have over 300+ friends is seen as delusional. Acquaintances are often involuntary relationships, and do not necessarily reflect that the two parties know each other very well or like each other. Thus claiming one’s acquaintances as friends is seen as desperate and indicates to others that the person has trouble engaging in complex relationships.
As is the case with many social networking sites, Facebook does not allow users to distinguish between simple and complex friendships—thus, when asked how many online friends they have, users are forced to include both categories, but are immune from the cultural stigma that would result if they were to include those same acquaintances in their count of offline friends. When asked about how many friends they have offline though, people will generally only include their complex friendships in order to avoid this same stigma. This conclusion was supported by my interview with Graham. When asked what the difference was between an online and offline friend, he mentioned that offline friends were people he talked to at least once a week. This is fitting with the definition of a complex friendship, where the tie includes frequent communication for upkeep. Online friends, Graham said, were people whom he had met at least once before but were not in regular contact. These are acquaintances, or simple friendships. It should be noted though that complex friends are also included in most user’s online friend list; when referring to “Facebook friends,” my interviewees and I are generally referring to the much larger portion of online friends that are not complex relationships.
Boyd’s paper mentions that the creators of Friendster originally intended for people to include only complex friendships in their network of online “friends,” but as we know this convention was quickly broken. But we have not yet explored why this is. I explained how people refer to acquaintances as friends but do not include them in their count of friends when asked how many they have offline. Why then do they include them in their online network? Boyd cites several subjects that said they friended people because it provided access to more user profiles and thus allowed them to meet new people. However on Facebook you are not granted access to anyone else’s profile except the one belonging to the person you friended. Other studies found that having certain friends, such as popular or attractive ones, causes those viewing your profile to form a more positive impression of you. Additionally, some studies showed that the number of friends one has can also have a positive or negative effect on impression formation, with the ideal number of friends being around 300. To attain a friend count this large, users would be required to include their simple friendships, not just their complex ones.
The personal experiences of my interviewees and I did not support the above explanations for friending acquaintances. Graham mentioned that he does not even look at the number of friends people have, or who their friends are. He is really only interested in the profile information of his complex friends. I do not put much emphasis on people’s friend count either, and impression formation is certainly not a factor for me when deciding whether or not to accept a friend request. Why then do people friend, and accept friend requests from, acquaintances? The answer appeared to be pretty consistent among the three of us. Both Graham and Alex claimed that it was a good way to be able to contact that person in case the need arose; I myself consider Facebook to be not much more than a glorified address book. I also find Facebook to be the poor man’s background check, allowing me to investigate someone I have just met before we interact further. Graham also mentioned that the last person he friended was a freshman on the Ultimate team, of which Graham is the captain. He said that doing so would make the new player feel good because he was being friended by a senior, which I thought might lend credence to the idea that friends impact impression formation. Graham was quick to point out however that he did not believe this was the case, and that having him as a friend would not likely enhance anyone else’s impression of the player, rather just the player’s own self esteem.
So we’ve established that most Facebook users friend acquaintances and have come up with some explanations for this behavior. However, not everyone has the same online habits. Alex, my other interviewee, claimed that he only friended “people he knew;” in other words, complex friends. Similar to the creators of Friendster, he subscribes to the idea that one should only friend close friends, but did not provide much of an explanation as to why other than stating that friending acquaintances was “silly.” Alex rejects many friend requests as a result of this belief, often with negative consequences due to the different dynamics of online and offline relationships. As I mentioned earlier, offline relationships generally do not require explicit acknowledgement by the parties involved, whereas on Facebook, friend requests can be rejected and friends can be purged from one’s list. This difference in contextual norms can result in conflict. When one of Alex’s close friends broke up with his girlfriend, Alex removed her from his Facebook friend list because their relationship was mostly based on her now ex-boyfriend. When Alex ran into her later, she asked him why he hated her, having discovered he removed her and feeling slighted.
This problem of explicit acknowledgement and the negative cues it can send, which arose from the fact that Facebook and Friendster were not originally designed to include acquaintances, was one of the most striking differences I noticed during the interviews between online and offline relationships. Boyd claimed that rejecting friend requests breaks a social norm of Facebook. Graham responded to Alex’s story by asserting that “people should not get self righteous about it.” I asked him whether he ever rejected friend requests, and what his criteria were for acceptance. He answered that he only rejects requests from the middle school students he teaches during the summer. He explained that friending them would be unacceptable, as it would have been a merging of his personal and professional lives. I myself have only rejected one person, a former friend whom I had a falling out with after he began acting in an inappropriate manner towards others. His request was a gesture of reconciliation, and my rejection sent the message that I still found his behavior unacceptable and did not want to be associated with him. Therefore, Alex aside, it would seem that the norm is to accept all friend requests except in those edge cases in which it would be inappropriate or, in my case, you are sending a cue by breaking that norm.
Based on these observations, it seems relatively clear to me that the definition of friend is fairly consistent across online and offline spaces, and that the discrepancy in friend counts between them is due to the vague way in which the word “friend” is used and the inability to distinguish between categories of friends on Facebook. When speaking of offline friends, most people only include their complex friendships, whereas online the large numbers of acquaintances people accumulate are given friend status due to people’s desire for contact information and to “check people out” rather than any status associated with the number or quality of friends. The inability to demarcate these people as acquaintances allows people to quote them in their online friend count without breaking the social norm present in offline situations. Overall it seems the notion of friendship is the same online and off, though small differences such as explicit acknowledgement can lead to friction between the two environments.