With over 1 Billion profiles and 584 million logging in daily, Facebook is a big freaking deal in our world today.

So with all of these people on the site, how do we decide to become friends with each other? According to Pew research, the average number of Facebook friends is 229 with users ages 18-34 averaging 318.5 friends and users ages 35-46 averaging 197.6 friends.

 

Watch the first 27 seconds of this video to see how awkward it can be to “Facebook” in real life

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There are many articles and blogs on the Internet about Facebook etiquette and so called “rules.” Each one has some comment on when we should consider adding someone as a friend on Facebook. “Don’t add someone as a Facebook friend unless you meet them offline first.”

“But if you wish to add someone for some valid reason, like to get to know this girl you have a crush on, do so with some introduction or through a mutual friend.”

Contrary to the others, Salam says that you can friend strangers, but not without a little “Facebook foreplay,” or sending messages as to not come completely out of the blue with request.

All of these are valid points when it comes to initiating the new friendship and what we should do about it on Facebook. As we meet new people both on and offline, what role does Facebook play in developing these friendships?

If you are a user of Facebook, and based on the statistics you probably are, you know that there are these “rules” that apply to how we use Facebook. Facebook doesn’t tell you when to add someone to your friend list; we, the users, create these rules based on our social expectations. In his textbook, A First Look at Communication Theory, Griffin describes the theory of Coordinated Management of Meaning (known as CMM) developed by W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen. This theory, briefly, says that through our social interactions we create the social world while simultaneously that social world is creating us. In other words, we, as users of Facebook, are shaping the rules that guide our actions on the site, but at the same time, as those rules are changing, they change us and our expectations for the site. This may be a little confusing at first, but once you wrap your head around it you can begin to see how it works and how important it is to understanding our behaviors and communication on Facebook. It is important for us to be conscious of our interactions on Facebook and how they relate to our real, offline life because, as CMM says we create the rules and the rules create us. When it comes to our newly forming friendships, how does Facebook and the “rules” surrounding it impact our actions?

So, this blog is about interpersonal communication, so let me bring in some info from Julia Wood’s textbook Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters.

Chapter 10 of the book deals with “The Development of Friendship” on page 260. In this section, the course of development a friendship takes is outlined. Here we are mainly talking about the first stages of new friendships and when it will be accepted to take that step into being Facebook friends. According to Wood, the first step of the friendship process is “Role-Limited Interaction” where we have the initial contact with the other person (for example in a class or at work or on a softball team). In this stage we tend to limit personal information and stick to the standard scripts set by social norms. The second step is “Friendly Relations” where we begin to find commonalities and discover more about the person and their likes and dislikes, but there is still some formality and hesitation toward a full friendship. The third is the “Moving Toward Friendship” stage where we initiate more contact and move the friendship from a social context to an interpersonal context. In this stage we consider the other to be a casual friend; not too close, but not too far away either. There are higher sages in this process, however I think that if you are in those levels, I will assume you are already friends on Facebook and this doesn’t apply to those relationships.

Somewhere in there we must make the decision to add this new-found, real-life friend to our Facebook friend list. When is that appropriate? Some would say immediately in the role-limited stage when others may say not until the moving toward friendship stage has begun. When making this decision, we should take into account other aspects of interpersonal communication to make our decision.

One aspect that will guide our decision will be the level of self-disclosure we wish to have with this new friend. Self-disclosure, part of having a trusting communication climate (described in Wood’s Chapter 8, page 199), is revealing things about your identity that could not be discovered in any other way. As the level of self-disclosure goes up in a relationship, the level of closeness also increases. Facebook is the ultimate area of self-disclosure. We post our relationship status, or thoughts, our likes, our favorite books, movies, web pages, photos of our lives, our past, and so much more. Letting someone into our Facebook page is equivalent to telling someone all about your identity in one nice, neat, well designed package. Research shows that status updates on Facebook are used primarily to display “current emotional state,” meaning a large part of self-disclosure that used to occur privately in interpersonal communication is now a semi-public announcement that many can see at once.

If self-disclosure increases closeness in relationships, Facebook friends can be closer to you than others who are not friends with you on Facebook.

So, back to where in the development process we add someone to our friend list. Based on this information about self-disclosure, I would place the ideal time for adding them in the 3rd stage, “Moving Toward Friendship.” This way the friend has some background information about who you are and your identity before being inundated by all the information about you that is provided on Facebook. Any earlier in the development stages and you may run the risk of disclosing too much in the relationship and thus stopping the process. Also, by this stage, you have developed some level of a relationship offline, an important factor for sustaining relationships. If you friend them too early, you could run the risk of stopping face-to-face communication and only interacting online.

Now that you are in the “Moving Toward Friendship” stage and are friends on Facebook discovering more about each other, there is one word of caution I can give. Based on the concept that language is symbolic and defines our perceptions, we must be careful about how we use the information we get from our new friend’s Facebook profile. Wood, in chapter 4, describes how language can totalize. Totalizing is where one aspect of an individual is used as the only aspect of their life. If a person reveals an aspect about their life on a Facebook status that you do not agree with or like, such as a religious or political belief, it could be easy to use that language to define the entirety of that person. This can cause troubles in a new, developing friendship if there is no basis formed offline where you know the individual as more than that one aspect. We have to understand that a person is much more than they self-disclose on Facebook, and an offline relationship is necessary for a healthy friendship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Image from Creative Commons – Originally posted to Flickr by malias at http://flickr.com/photos/62752875@N00/2836740097)

Wrapping things up, I think it is easy to see how it can be so hard to understand the rules around adding Facebook friends. The rules are constantly changing based on how we define them and each friendship is different and has a different development rate and pattern. When does this random guy in my class move from the “role-limited interaction” to the “friendly relation” stage? How much do I want him to know about me? How much do I want to know about him? Do I want to know what his emotional status is?

What I think is the most important to take away from this look at the role of Facebook in the development of new friendships is that there are no real “rules.” There are guidelines and research and theories that help us to better understand what happens in these situations and what they may mean, but overall, in interpersonal communication, it is all about what is right for that specific relationship. The communication between two people in a friendship is just that, between two people. There is no set-in-stone rulebook that must be followed. What is best is that you and the other person are comfortable with the level of friendship and have your ideal communication climate.