Meet my 5,000 new best pals

Meet my 5,000 new best pals

Brittnie Sarnes has 5,000 MySpace friends. Actually, make that 5,036. At last count, anyhow. About 10 people a day ask to "friend" her.

Usually she says yes.

She knows they're total strangers, but it doesn't matter. Each time she's asked, it feels "kinda cool — like 'Oh, this person thinks I'm cool enough to befriend me,' " says Brittnie, 17, of Columbus, Ohio.

From there, anything can happen. The person might "comment" her page. She might send her e-mail or an instant message, and they could start a conversation. They might even become real-life friends.

But probably, she'll just sit on Brittnie's list, joining the 90% of her friends with whom she has virtually no contact.

Call it a hobby. Call it an obsession. Call it the new way of socializing in the networked world.

When Georgia Bobley, 18, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sees a page with more than 500 friends, she thinks "it's a little creepy." Her Facebook page is pictured.
When Georgia Bobley, 18, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sees a page with more than 500 friends, she thinks "it's a little creepy." Her Facebook page is pictured.

Call it "friending," the way millions of teens and young adults obsessed with social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are making connections.

Friendship always has been a tricky game, especially for teens. But in the past it was played out in school hallways, on playgrounds and in late-night phone calls.

These days it is happening in full color on the computer screen — often in front of the world. And it can be confusing, especially for teens trying to fit in.

How many friends should one have? What kind of friends should they be? Are online friends "real"?

 Does it help boost self-esteem, or might it be harmful?

There are no rules.

"They're evolving," says Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute, the etiquette and manners clearinghouse.

For Valerie Smithers, 17, of Sonoma, Calif., "it's kind of like entertainment." But she adds, "My family members and all my friends make fun of me. I'm so, like, into it."

But Amanda Peters, 17, of Pinole, Calif., worries that friending teaches teens bad social skills. "All these friendships aren't real," says Amanda, who recently wrote a story for a teen literary journal about how friending is getting out of control. "If anything happens where you get annoyed with them, you can just delete them from your list and never have to worry about them again.

"If I get mad at my friend that I go to school with, I can't just erase her from my life. She's still a person. She still exists. I'm going to have to interact with her."

But friends lists are filled with all sorts of friends — from best friends to virtual strangers.

"The idea of actually meeting all your friends on your MySpace page is just strange," says Danah Boyd, a social media researcher for Yahoo. "You wouldn't do that. These are just people you're connected to. And you connect to them for a ton of different reasons."

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age, says real friends can never be replaced by online ones. "Friending really appeals to the ego, where friendships appeal to the conscience," he says.

When people friend others online, "they're making social contacts." But those friends could develop into "more substantive" relationships, he adds.

For some, friending is not just a pastime, it's also an indication of social success or failure, says Susan Lipkins, an adolescent psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y.

"If you go to college and you don't have a full bunch of people on your MySpace or Facebook, then it's implying that there's something wrong with you," Lipkins says. "Listing your buddies and your friends is a way of establishing yourself, of feeling connected and feeling like you're accepted."

And for younger teens, especially, "friending is a way of finding status and is the definition of who you are online," says Parry Aftab, an expert on teen safety and the Internet. "You're judged by your friends list."

Just in case you were wondering: Size matters. For some, such as Brittnie, status comes with having extremely long lists of friends, although most MySpace and Facebook users have a few hundred.

"Some people used to collect pet rocks or trinkets or stamps," says Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher and specialist in teens and technology at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "And some people collect friends — to see how many people you can put onto your network. Some of it is seen as a proxy for popularity."

Lists can be faked

Competition for friends can be so fierce that ad-supported websites are cropping up. They plug you into a system where you can start automatically generating friends — or where you can generate fake friends — to make lists look fat.

And last October, a 19-year-old calling himself "Samy" took credit for writing a computer worm that automatically generated friends on his MySpace page.

Some say overly long lists can smack of desperation.

When Georgia Bobley, 18, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sees a page with more than 500 friends, she thinks "it's a little creepy."

But having too few friends might mean you're not very popular. "When I go onto somebody's Facebook profile, and they have four friends, I'm like, 'Oh, my God. What? They only have four friends?' " She has 329.

Brittnie won't friend anyone with fewer than 150 friends; it means "nobody likes them."

But Valerie, who has 1,327 friends, says she will sometimes ignore list length for the right reasons. If she encounters someone with "only 12 or 20 friends, but they seem like a cool person, I'll start a conversation with them, and I will still treat them like someone who had a thousand friends or something. They could've just started their site, too."

Then there's the issue of the kinds of friends you keep. Make friends with too many losers, and you might find yourself on the other side of a virtual closed door.

If, for instance, a person friends bands (on MySpace you can friend actors, bands, movies and even commercial characters) that "suck," Brittnie says, "then that person probably does, too, and you probably don't want to add them."

She has other standards: "The other day I got a friend request, and it was a picture of like this dude's (genitals). I didn't add him."

But mostly, for Brittnie and a lot of others, friending is a kind of game. She'll ask to friend someone "like if you come by somebody's page, and you're like, 'They seem cool; I like their hair.' Or, 'Oh, he's hot,' then, you know, you just add them in hopes of maybe they'll talk to me, and we can become best friends. Or maybe they won't."

For others, though, especially younger teens, it's not a game.

"There are lots of kids who go there looking for friends because they don't have them elsewhere," Aftab says. "And they'll find different ways of getting them. The standards may not be so high."

At its root, competing for friends and fighting for status is hardly new behavior, Aftab says. Kids have always judged each other by the friends they keep.

"If you're snubbed by somebody walking down the hall at school, it's not as obvious as if no one wants to be your friend on your profile. If the other kids think one of your friends is lame, and they start commenting to your site, a lot of kids will drop friends because they're seen as not cool by other kids."

It isn't just kids who are learning the rules or making them up as they go along. Take the perilous issue of the Top 8, which seems to trip up everyone at some point.

That's the top eight friends displayed by default on a MySpace page. The rule is, you put your most important friends on your Top 8. Except if you don't know the rule.

That happened with Bob Christianson, 40, of Hudson, Fla. Christianson originally got on MySpace to keep tabs on his 14-year-old daughter and quickly got hooked on the site, which he uses to date and meet people.

But recently, he had to post an explanation of his Top 8.

"Just so I don't offend anybody," he wrote, "I don't rank my friends, so if you're not in my Top 8 it doesn't mean that you are any more or less of a friend to me."

That kind of explanation may calm adults. But the Top 8 issue constantly causes teen angst, says Amanda Peters. "Some people get really anal about it. They're like, 'I'm on your Top 8, but why am I the eighth person? Like how come I'm not No. 2?'

"I think it's just really stupid. I'm not the only friend people have, so why should I have any say on who they have in their top whatever?"

Nevertheless, she understands what happens when Top 8 status isn't reciprocated.

"You could think you're misjudging the relationship. Which sounds really funny because it's such a small trivial thing. You could feel kind of sad, like 'Oh, I thought we were hecka close.' "

Rejection still hurts

Those kinds of feelings are natural, Lenhart says. The online world "is a proxy for our off-line experience. It's not surprising that we get hurt when you see things that in the off-line world would be pretty hurtful. When you're rejected, it's being rejected."

Earlier this month, the issue came to light when Facebook, with 9.6 million members, added a feature that turned people's personal information into headlines that were displayed on friends' pages.

People always could search their friends' profiles; it's part of the privilege of friendship.

But Facebook members suddenly found routine information, such as when they made a new friend or posted a new picture, being broadcast to their entire network of friends, including casual acquaintances and virtual strangers.

The community rebelled. Tens of thousands of members (mostly college students) signed petitions and sent out e-mails saying they hated the feature because they didn't want their personal information spoon-fed to all their friends.

Facebook responded, adding privacy controls that let people select what kind of information they will allow to be broadcast.

The flap showed that many people don't necessarily consider online friends to be genuine friends, Bugeja says. "They weren't interested in everything everyone else was doing on a subsurface level."

In the end, the move may cause people to reconsider whom they friend, Lenhart says.

Friending is a work in progress, says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist and technology consultant.

"It's a good social experiment. Every generation finds its excuse for people to meet people. This is just this generation's thing. It will die back a little bit, and they will keep the part that works."


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