February 3, 2005

Friendster commodifies notion of "friend"

I've noticed kind of a disturbing phenomenon with Friendster. At least seven times now, people I know have tried to add me to their lists of friends. No, nothing special about that. But when they wanted to add me, they didn't send a personal message with the invitation. It was just, "add me."

Once, it was a girl I knew a few years ago in college. We had been out of touch for a long time. Another time, it was a friend of my brother's, someone with whom I'm not close. More recently, it was a person I had seen that very day.

In all these cases, no one said, "Hey, I like your profile" or "What have you been up to?" or "Yeah, I know; bagels outside of New York suck, don't they?" They just wanted to connect their profile to mine—presumably to be able to meet more people, to increase their "friend" count, or, if I'm lucky, because they actually like me as a person.

I believe in expressing your appreciation to someone who enriches your life. I try to do it for others as much as I can, and I enjoy hearing sincere expressions of gratitude for what I've offered someone. What bothers me about Friendster is that it's turned a friendly relationship into a commodity. It's made associating yourself with someone less an expression of a genuine emotional connection and more a functional process.

Depending on how you look at it, Friendster has either changed our mentality about social relationships or simply brought that mentality further out into the open. Hey, sure…maybe you like someone. But let's get to the point: You want to meet people. And this person—friend, passing acquaintance, whatever—is a stepping-stone to that.

And look: I have 362 friends on my page! All these little pictures I've accumulated give me self-worth—and help me network!

Of course, Friendster doesn't merit all the responsibility for cheapening the connotation of the word "friend." A man in a leadership position I know addresses a crowd of people with a hearty "Friends!" I don't think everyone listening is his friend. When he advertises the Living Air purifier on the radio, Pat Boone starts out with a lulling, "Friends…" Pat Boone doesn't know who I am. For that matter, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers—with all due respect to their sect—have turned the word into a proper name. Surely, not all Friends are friends.

Maybe what bothers me about the impersonal invitations I've received is simply that they've replaced my idealism about social relationships with a more blunt view of how people think about each other. Maybe Friendster doesn't change the meaning of the word "friend" from someone you value to some degree, to someone you maybe value or maybe just want to rack up (or a combination of both). Perhaps people themselves are responsible for that.

Out of the seven invitations that came without a personal message, I accepted five without sending a personal e-mail back. Mea culpa.

Oh, and ummm…I don't think I'll repeat inviting someone to be my "friend" without adding a personal message.