When Tim Berners Lee invented the world-wide web in 1990 I don’t think he, or any of us could predict the huge changes it would make to the way we communicate and live our lives. The internet has shifted the basis of some fundamental relationships. With the growth of online social networking what does it even mean to be a ‘friend’? Personally I’m a bit confused.
The dictionary defines a friend as
• A person you know well and like, and who is not usually a member of your family
• A person you know, like and trust
• A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade
• One who supports, sympathizes with, or patronizes a group, cause, or movement.
So when someone you don’t know declares their friendship online, what do you do? It’s not very friendly to ignore or reject someone, but then again is it ok to assume a level of intimacy by asking a stranger for friendship in the first place?
So to help me navigate round the world of online friendship I’ve set some basic friendship criteria.
Twitter is a bit of a free for all, anyone can follow you and you can follow anyone. However, just because you are following someone on Twitter doesn’t make you friends. It’s the online equivalent of living in the same town, you have some common interest and Twitter is just a mechanism to allow you to more easily know about people doing the same stuff.
If, on Twitter, we chat, share links, share ideas and build some rapport we could be heading into friendship territory. We may even meet face to face, either at an organised Tweetup or networking events or a 1:1 meeting. For example great to connect with @commutiny recently and @ycharity at the Institute of Fundraising’s First Thursday last week. So once there is some specific contact we could be in a position to be ‘friends’ on Linkedin.
This is a professional network, so linking to people in your industry, people with shared professional interests including headhunters and job seekers. I love Linkedin, but just because you work in the same industry as someone you can’t assume you are ‘friends’. Sending a generic introduction ‘indicating you are friends’ if you are not – is not OK. If you work in the same org/industry and want to link to someone then that’s great, but put a line in your introduction, like ‘ I saw we are on the same group, work for xxx company and it would be good to talk about a project I am working on’ – or similar.
Declaring friendship with someone you do not know is the equivalent of rocking up to a stranger at a business conference and treating them with the intimacy of a long-lost friendship with a big hug and kisses an a reference to weight gained/lost. If you have not established any relationship before it feels uncomfortable and frankly weird.
Now onto Facebook; a lot of organisations use Facebook as a corporate site and a lot of companies are doing a really good job of building communities of loyal customers, engaging them with product development, getting feedback and gaining insight.
However, I use Facebook to link with my friends. Real life people who I know. Facebook is great for sharing photos, keeping in touch with friends overseas, finding long-lost friends and stalking ex’s (apparently).
Seriously, you have to know me to be friends. Just because we went to the same school 20 years ago don’t assume friendship, and if it’s a bit of a tentative connection give an explanation when you invite me to be your friend.
My Facebook rule is ‘If they turned up at my house on a Sunday afternoon would I invite them in for a cup of tea?. If the answer is yes, then we can be Facebook friends.
If you are using Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook to build communities, donor or customer relationships, have a think about friendship etiquette. This is especially important for communicating with those born before 1990, because it’s a new skill. They didn’t grow up with the internet. Before you send a friend request take a moment to consider how the person you are befriending will feel about your request, it may be that there is a better way of communicating with them to get the result you want.
I’m not saying my view is gospel, but it’s helping me navigate in a way that feels right for me and importantly does not dilute the importance and meaning of offline friendships.