June 1, 2007
Personal Questions of Social Interaction and Etiquette Raised by Online Networks

Recently, a variety of personal events in my online network of friends has made me think further about a variety of issues about online social networks, issues that would not come up in a pre-social networks world. I just wanted to blog "out loud" about some of these issues to see if other readers out there have thought about these things as well.

1.) No ending boundaries for relationships. I talked with Cabell Gathman, who is doing her Ph.D. work in Madison on social networks and how they are changing communication patterns and the way people manage relationships, a few months ago about boundaries for personal relationships.

She had pointed out that friends from times past that you would never have had contact again in a pre-MySpace or Facebook world can now return at any point. For instance, there was a couple my wife and I were good friends with who got a divorce, and the wife moved away. I found her on MySpace and have tried to contact her a few times, but she never responds to my messages. Back when she first moved away, she said she was afraid that the divorce would cause us to lose touch and that she wanted to remain friends, yet she never responded to any of our attempts to contact her.

In a pre-MySpace world, she could have made that empty promise to want to stay in touch, move away, and never have to worry about hearing from us again. Now, however, I find her online and try to reach her, only to be ignored. Whereas time and distance once made it easy to let a friendship fade away, new technologies keep those relationships going. So, I'm left to ponder whether we are just a reminder of a life she wants to leave behind her, or perhaps that she never liked us in the first place and only stayed friends with us through her marriage...

2.) Strange misunderstandings. An acquaintance from elementary school sent me a friend invitation on MySpace, and I accepted. Sure, I hadn't seen him in many years, but I did know him, and I didn't have any reason not to. A few days later, his boyfriend sent me an invitation. My policy is not to accept every invitation that is sent my way and particularly never from someone I don't know. Now, if I had a close friend who had a new relationship, I might try to make an effort to get to know their new significant other. But, in the case of the boyfriend of someone I hadn't seen regularly in many year, I didn't feel the need to maintain the social tie.

Unfortunately, this led to a misunderstanding, by which I think that old acquaintance thought that I was publicly snubbing his boyfriend because of some disapproval of an open homosexual relationship, and he deleted me as one of his friends. Now, I was somehow tied up in a controversy with someone I likely would have never seen again otherwise. Eventually, I messaged his boyfriend and explained my policy for not accepting people we didn't know. We had a nice back-and-forth conversation about my hometown back in Kentucky, and my elementary school acquaintance put me back on his friends list, so that we can now once again maintain our status quo of not talking. What a strange world...

3.) Maintaining identity. As I wrote about weekly in my newspaper column "From Beaver Dam to Boston," I had another problem with an old hometown friend not that long ago. Nathan and I went to high school together and worked at the same grocery store. He was coming up to Boston for a visit and messaged me online to say he wanted to get together and that he would call when he arrived. Unfortunately, I had not updated my contact information on Facebook, where he had copied down my numbers, and he didn't have e-mail access while he was in Boston, leading to neither of us being able to contact the other. It was a harsh reminder that, "with great power comes great responsibility," and if we are going to have all these open places for our contact information, it then means we have to spend a significant amount of time maintaining these various identities.

4.) A deceased friend. I had a friend who graduated high school with me who committed suicide. Her friends were able to publicly grieve with each other through her Facebook page, writing messages both about and even to her for quite some time. After a while, though, it was quite haunting to log onto Facebook and still see her face there among my friends list. It was quite some time before her profile was eventually removed. Over on MySpace, though, her profile still stands. I hadn't seen her profile on MySpace until after her death, so we were not friends there. But it is quite a strange feeling. We hadn't seen each other for years but had recently caught back up and messaged each other online a few times, before her death. It seems that, as time goes on, figuring out efficient ways to balance leaving someone's social networking page up as a tribute after their death and leaving it up for too long has to be reached...

5.) Class reunions. As I wrote about back in January, the need for class reunions seems to be diminishing. We talked about having our five-year high school class reunion last summer, but most of the people contacted said that, through MySpace and Facebook, they already kept up with almost anyone they wanted to, and the ones they didn't keep up with were the ones they'd rather never see again anyway. Of course, there's still something about face-to-face interaction, so surely we will have a class reunion at some point, but in an era where you can see the wedding pictures and baby pictures and up-to-the-minute reports on all your acquaintances from high school, the point of getting back together surely changes when you no longer have to wonder if someone's gained weight or lost their hair or become a success...or a failure.