Is Facebook For Networking Or Isn’t It?

Last year, the week of Easter, atheists all over Facebook changed our pictures to the “scarlet A”, signifying our willingness to stand out and stand up in solidarity with other atheists. “‘A’ Week” was a major event for me since I got the idea of mass-friending people with the A avatars without even realizing there was already a vibrant community of atheists who friended each other on Facebook and networked that way. Literally overnight I had joined an already existing, exciting web community without even realizing what I was doing. I wound up with hundreds of new atheist Facebook friends in just a few days and ~2000 total of them in 9 months now since A week.

This community has been an invaluable resource and consolation to me. These are passionate activists, who care about sharing important information and ideas, who dive into all manner of ideas-oriented comment threads, and who provide a counter-balance in debates on each other’s walls where normally atheists would be outnumbered by people’s “real world” friends. We are a community for geographically or socially isolated atheists who feel alienated from their friends, families, and communities because of their minority positions on religion.

But you do not make 2,000 strangers into Facebook friends without along the way having hundreds of strangers turn you down. And in the last year, Facebook has started to accuse me of spamming, even though I have tried to carefully only select people I have reason to think might be interested in meeting an atheist. I have been threatened with penalties if I friend people who say they do not know me. And unfortunately Facebook now does not let you reject a friend request without saying you do not know the person (even if in reality you do know the person and just don’t like them—apparently in Facebook‘s world there are two only types of people—friends and strangers.) If you simply say you do not want to accept the friend request, Facebook informs you that they “report the unwanted friend request”.
Now, I turn down the occasional friend request from strangers (and–very rarely–even from people I do know but just do not like). But I do not want those people reported as nuisances or spammers for committing the crime of reaching out to me with the offer of their acquaintanceship. Ironically, Facebook will currently let you share with the whole world if you want to set your settings completely open but it won’t let you make selected strangers into friends. It makes little sense.

I worry that Facebook’s recent clamp down on friending strangers threatens to prevent the site being used for one of its ostensive purposes, networking. Facebook needs to make a distinction between friendship requests and network requests, or make it so people open to being networked with can opt in to the option of receiving “networking” friend requests, even as networking-averse people are automatically left only receiving friendship requests from those they already know.

Facebook could even allow users to generate numerous networking niches that people could opt into voluntarily. If someone wants to network only with other archers or knitters or business women or expectant mothers or lacrosse players or Amish people, then why not have a way for people to signal that to each other and get recommendations for network connections based on this specified shared interest. This would clarify greatly when a rejected request is because it is out-of-desired-network spam and when a rejected request was reasonable and should not be held against the rejected requester.

In the meantime, I think for this year, during “‘A’ Week”, networking friendly atheists need to find a way to get the word out that their particular “A” avatar is an invitation for other atheists to connect with them. And we should use this event as a way to show Facebook one of the highly valued ways that their service is being used by a minority community and ask them to rethink their one size fits all friend request system so that it can accommodate the more complex variety of uses people have for the service and the more complex relationship dynamics people have with each other.

The world is not divided neatly into the two categories, “friends” and “strangers”. Sometimes a stranger is a friend you have not yet met and sometimes an acquaintance is someone you wish you never met. As the increasingly all-consuming gatekeeper of people’s social networks, Facebook needs to start learning such distinctions.
Until Facebook changes its policy of treating unwanted friend requests indiscriminately like they are spam, I will just table any friend requests I do not actually want to accept, rather than report those people as essentially as spammers against my own wishes to have them treated that way. I encourage those of you who agree with my points in this post to do the same and to spread this post around to support the ability of people to network with valuable new people using Facebook as a resource.

Friend me here if you think you would benefit from interacting with me personally beyond what my blog affords. Both atheists and theists alike are most welcome. All you need to be is philosophically curious and love reasonable debates and I will most likely like you (even if we occasionally get testy with each other).

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