When Newspapermen Tried to Explain Friending to America

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"A high friend count is as much evidence of a willingness to hustle as it is proof of popularity."

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Today, on the eve of the Facebook IPO, there is available online pretty much bottomless Kremlinology of the company's direction and internal workings, much of it quite sophisticated. There are, additionally, years of Pew reports giving us a demographic picture of who uses the site. And, of course, there is the company's own SEC filing, full of details about its finances.

But this wealth of information and understanding about Facebook is new (as is the company itself), and it wasn't all that long ago that newspapers were trying to explain just what this was to America's social-networking virgins. And the one thing you need to explain in order to explain Facebook? Friending, which remains at the heart of how Facebook works, despite years of updates to the site.

And Facebook friending, both the idea and the act, has always provoked some level of discomfort. In 2004, being "friends" with someone -- that basic, ancient social connection -- suddenly became an official status, an artifact in a database somewhere. How would "friending" shape our ideas about friendship? Forget ideas, how would it affect our actual friendships? In 2012, "friending" has perhaps lost some of its mystery, and we can see that "Facebook friends" has, in some ways, taken on its own particular meaning, one that plays into our friendships -- as we use Facebook to stay in touch, reach out, and make plans -- but is still, in some ways, distinct from them.

But when Facebook -- or thefacebook.com, as they then knew it -- launched in February of 2004, we didn't have any sense of what Facebook friending was, or how to politely and properly use it without making a fool of oneself. And in the fall of 2004, when the site had reached nearly one million users, the task fell to America's newspapers to try to figure this all out.

As Bill Schackner reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Kelly weighs the online request for all of two seconds, then uses a single keystroke to give his classmate the thumbs up. In the parlance of The Facebook, Kelly has just "friended" him.

"He's a good kid. He was in my freshman studies class. I'm going to confirm it," Kelly said as he tapped the keyboard the other day. "Now he's my friend, and I'm his."

...

The site debuted at Pitt only last month. Yet already, 6,410 accounts have been opened, said Hughes, a total equal to more than a third of the Oakland campus's undergraduate population. The average friend list there is 31, compared with 57 at Carnegie Mellon and 29 at Penn State University.

[Facebook spokesperson Chris] Hughes knows of some friend totals topping 700.

But though Hughes might have known a few such consummate Facebook users, early reports on Facebook constantly mention that no, it was just not at all cool to have a very long list of Facebook friends.

There are quite a few examples of this:

  • One Princeton student told the New York Times in and article from December 1, 2004, "It's definitely about status, but if you have too many people on your friends list, it just looks dorky. ... If you have 230 friends, you're taking it way too seriously.'' 

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer noted similarly, "Then, again, you don't want too many facebook friends, for fear people might think you don't have any real friends that you actually spend time with."

  • The LA Times: "It's like your coolness is inversely proportional to the friends you have on the facebook," said Pomona sophomore Brian Hardesty, who lists about 200. Students are likely to tease anyone with more than about 250.

  • Or, the Washington Post:

The Facebook's friends section is, for some people, the most important of all. It lists the number of friends a person has at his or her own school and at other colleges that also belong to the Facebook. The Student Association president has 747 friends at GW alone. Some people watch the growth of their friend counts carefully.

"I'm not competitive," says Scotti, who has 157 friends at GW and more at other schools. "Well, okay, that's a lie. A little bit competitive."

It is not necessarily cool to admit this, especially since, as everyone who's used the Facebook knows, a high friend count is as much evidence of a willingness to hustle as it is proof of popularity.

"A high friend count is as much evidence of a willingness to hustle as it is proof of popularity" -- what a perfect little sentence for capturing that early anxiety with a new social system. Just a few years later we may spend less time worrying about our friend counts getting too high but the anxiety is still there, a by-product of our rapidly changing world.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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