Making friends on Facebook

Who's the most famous person you know on Facebook? 

On Saturday, I stumbled upon the Pixar film Wall-E.  I had heard it was good, but nothing prepared me for how good it was.  Wow.

Because this is the internet age, I looked up Wall E on line.  And because this is the Facebook era, the moment I saw the name of the director (Andrew Stanton), I plugged it into my Facebook search bar.  But of course I would like to be friends with a guy this brilliant. 

There he was on Facebook.  Looking way too relaxed (see photo above) to be a prime mover of a motion picture.  But no, I can't be Mr. Stanton's friend.  My only option: to be his "fan."

I balked at this. 

I have no illusions.  Andrew Stanton is a very big deal.  He is a master of a medium that matters much more than the media I have tried to make myself the master of (books and blogs).  He's a big sneeze.  I'm a wee sniffle.  Still, because this is the age of shifting power relations and a new symmetry of relation between the producers and consumers of culture (see the work of Henry Jenkins work here), I am disinclined to be a "fan."

Now, we can understand Andrew Stanton may not wish to be my friend (or anyone's friend) on Facebook.  Many millions of people know about him.  Many revere him as a god.  And several hundred of these people can be relied upon to use even something as slender as a Facebook connection the opportunity to inundate him with so many messages he will never make a film again. 

This is in the nature of fandom.  Most fans are respectful of boundaries.  But with numbers this large, there's going to be someone who just can't help themselves.  (As when someone close to me saw Elvis Costello in a New York restaurant and had to be forcibly restrained from pulling up a chair and joining him for dinner.)  They don't mean harm.  They just love the celebrity that much. 

So I understand why Stanton isn't taking friends on Facebook.  But I also understand why I don't want to be merely a "fan."  It's a little too asymmetrical for me.  It confirms my "distant planet" status.  The thing that draws me closer pushes me away.  Being a fan makes me feel a little like Wall-E, plunky, likeable, and really just totally out there in the universe. 

We need is a third category, one that gives me the illusion of a connection, even it protects Mr. Stanton for my enthusiasm.  Something between a friend and a fan.  (There are two additional possibilities: that Mr. Stanton broaden his notion of friend or I narrow my notion of fan.  Like that's going to happen.) In a still more perfect world, we would have a ziggurat, many circles ranked from quite close to quite far away. 

Categories, schmategories.  The issue is classificatory haziness.  How people are positioned relative to one another, this is the work of culture.  Culture decides who I am to you, and who you are to me.  Culture gives the ideas by which association is defined and calculated.  (Very roughly speaking, it's some version of kinship for hunter-gathers, some notion of hierarchy for pre and early modern cultures, and some notion of accomplishment for modern and post modern cultures.  With lots and lots of local variation.) 

But because our culture is in a certain turmoil, how we define ourselves relative to one another is now unclear.  We have many competing elites.  We have many evaluative principles.  We have a new discomfort with hierarchical distinction and status asymmetry.  And we have new networking technologies that give us the opportunity (and illusion) of access. 

We will work it out.  After all, Facebook only 5 years.  In the meantime, dear reader, I want you to go to Facebook and make me your friend. 

10 thoughts on “Making friends on Facebook

  1. Domen

    Friends share and fans follow. I don’t want to be a follower either, but then again, Wall-E is not exactly “open-source”.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Aren’t there concentric circles or orbits or something that make the producer-consumer or big-cheese/small-fish tension harder to parse in our society?

    The fact that I could read a book by Grant McCracken and cite him in my company’s publication and then a decade later be joining him for dinner at a restaurant is stunning. And very cool. We can be fans and friends, I guess?

    The other day I stopped into a local design firm and was meeting folks, one of whom said, oh, yes, I’ve known your name. She then made air-quotes (or scare-quotes) and said “You’re – ‘famous'” which didn’t make me feel like a celebrity or like she was following me or a fan, but just that she knew who I was. It was totally a good feeling, of course, but a very natural one. I know a lot of people. And a lot of people know “of” me.

    I’m not elevating my own network or community-celebrity to that of a McCracken or Stanton, just throwing out a few examples. Fodder for Grant’s next post on the topic?

  3. Rick Liebling

    Couple thoughts on this:

    If person A wants to be friends w/ person B, simply hitting a button on Facebook really doesn’t do the term ‘friend’ justice. You’re going to have to work harder to be a friend. Just as if I walked down the street in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t call someone a friend simply because they live three doors down. I have to lend him some sugar, invite him over for a BBQ or otherwise make a meaningful connection. Perhaps Mr. Stanton expects the same of his online friends as he does of his real world friends. I consider Grant a friend not because I read and enjoy his books and blog (which I do), but because we have shared conversations via email and in person on numerous occasions.

    Or, again as in real life, maybe people are just different. Maybe Mr. Stanton is an intensely private person and the idea of thousands of friends, Facebook or real, weirds him out. Other people feel differently. I recently reached out to Alex Bogusky of Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, a guy I’d put in the same class of talent and celebrity as Stanton, and Bogusky was super friendly and charitable. Doesn’t make him a better person than Stanton, just different.

  4. Stuart Myles

    The “problem” (and defining feature) of Facebook is that they have decided to make the “friend” relationship entirely symmetric. When someone friends me on FB I have to either allow them (and friend them back) or not. This is not satisfactory, hence the invention of the “fan” FB pages. Not satisfactory, either, as you point out so well.

    Twitter’s “follow” relationship is asymmetric. When I follow someone, they do not have to follow me back. They can, however, block me, if they want. They can also choose to follow me later, if they like. Even if they are not following me, I can direct messages their way (via the @ mechanism). However, there are benefits to the symmetric follow relationship, such as being able to direct message each other.

    Twitter isn’t perfect, but by allowing relationships to be asymmetric in this way, they have allowed for a richer set of connections (including ugly ones, like spambot followers).

  5. Marcus Malka

    “Admire” “Appreciate” ? One of the great things in Twitter is the use of the word “follow”, which I feel is neutral enough to be used as a connection even with people who you have no personal connection with. It beats the hell out of “Fan”.

  6. Susan

    I read this just before your post:

    So there is obviously a meme in the air.

    My thoughts are similar to his on this – I use Facebook (and yes, you and I are linked though you do not meet any of the following categories:-)) for people I grew up with, went to school with, got drunk with, traveled with, lived with…married, etc. On Facebook, everyone of my friends can read what I am saying about every other one of my friends – so to keep it lively, it helps to have criss-crossing relationships.

    I use LinkedIn for a broader mix of people, friends, colleagues, former collagues, frenemies, future colleagues, students, passers-by. I can be super-open about connecting with folks by using LinkedIn, and I can keep my chummy funny friendly group close-knit on Facebook.

  7. Jim

    I am “friends” with famous people on facebook, and not a “fan.” Some celebs make real facebook pages. They have thousands of friends, but they don’t really talk to you. I have never seen one of them go on facebook chat. Nor have I seen them post on someone’s wall. So it is still the same situation as just being a fan.

  8. Jeremy

    there are 19 Grant McCrackens on FaceBook. I’m not about to send a message to all of them. So, make it easier for those of us who would like to be Friends with you.

  9. mpg

    At the risk of sound old-fashioned and curmudgeonly, I think we’re seeing a cheapening of the noun “friend” in these all too heady days of social networking. As noted above, a “friend” used to be someone who you actually knew and who in turn knew you. Their is a large semantic gap amongst the terms “friend”, “fan”, “business colleague”, “alumni of same 1000-person graduating class”, etc.

    If I was a deeper thinker, I’d wonder if there really was something culturally significant about people seeming to need so many “friends” these days. Ego gratification for the popular? Sense of belongingness for the unpopular?

    who is nonetheless sure Grant would loan him a cup of sugar if asked

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