Facebook and GMO "Friends"

Facebook is one of the world's dominant social networking websites. It has changed the way that people view online interactions, and many other aspects of society. Facebook has introduced a new understanding of the word "Friend" to the world. While some find this useful, others of us find it disturbing. The word "Friend" is being engineered to mean something drastically different -- much like food that is being genetically engineered to alter its basic properties.

There are some estimates that suggest that as much as 10 percent of all Facebook user accounts represent entities that do not exist. In plain language, about 10 percent of Facebook profiles are fake. Additionally, numerous sources suggest that huge numbers of actual Facebook user accounts contain inaccurate or manufactured information in them. However, there appears to be no reliable estimate of just how many accounts contain such bogus or exaggerated information. No matter how you wish to view this, the underlying reality is that the large amount of bogus information on Facebook makes it an extremely unreliable way to connect with "Friends" that one does not personally know.

What is odd is that Facebook engages in a schizophrenic policy towards connecting with new "Friends" via sending "Friend Requests." On the one hand, it makes suggestions on who to send such requests to. On the other hand, it frequently sanctions people who send out "Friend Requests" to people they may not know outside of the Facebook Virtual Fern Bar. So, while people are encouraged to make new "Friends" on Facebook, they are also discouraged from asking people to be "Friends." Some Facebook users sit at their 5,000 "Friend" limit -- some with multiple profiles filled with "Friends" -- while others have few "Friends" at all. It is a confusing and surreal system, at best.

Facebook analytics use the "anonymous" activities and information of users as resources that may be sold as a commodity to interested parties. This would appear to give Facebook an incentive to create as many "Friend" connections as possible, to increase activities, sharing of information, and exposure to Facebook promoted products and services. On the other hand, there is no real vetting process for Facebook users, so there is no actual way of knowing whether the activities and information represent anything usable in to anyone, in any real way. Facebook does have hacking incidents on a regular basis, but much of the information on just how often this occurs, or what kinds of information are routinely being compromised, is less readily available on Facebook, or anywhere else on the Internet for that matter.

With the large numbers of users of Facebook from around the world, one would want to believe that most Facebook users are highly aware of the consequences of posting sensitive information. Many of the features of Facebook actually nullify their professed security efforts. While Facebook itself professes excellent security for users, many groups complain that the company does little to protect its users from cyberstalkers, scam artists, or other malicious entities. While Facebook proudly announces changes to security policies, there are numerous reports of information compromises, cyberstalking, and information sold to various parties in the news and across the Internet. There is no way to no just how extensive the problems are, but given the large volume of complains, it seems likely that something is happening.

The core issue of relevance here, however, is how the term "Friend" is being altered by this new Facebook reality. With only a brief and incomplete channel of information passing back and forth on Facebook, using the term "Friend" to describe connections on Facebook does seem to be less than wholly appropriate. No matter how one might tend to describe their friends in traditional face to face interactions, nothing about the Facebook "Friendship" resembles such a traditional friendship. This is acutely the case for those who "Friendships" were fomented and maintained solely on Facebook. There is actually no way of knowing whether the person one has "Friended" is who they say they are, or some psychotic murderer looking for another victim.

Much like GMO corn or soy, the new "Friends" on Facebook are an engineered product. They are based on something from an organic source, but modified for the benefit of a select few. Many of the studies on the various impacts of social networks suggest that there are implications and consequences to the increased reliance on this technology that are not being addressed by either the proprietors or users of the technology. The lack of multichannel communication, the truncation of language, the intermittent nature of the communication, and a whole host of other distortions of traditional communication that exist in social networking on the Internet, all should be of great concern to us. Perhaps it might be wise to consider the idea that, just because something can be done, does not always mean it should be done. The change of paradigm in defining the term "Friend" may be something of little consequence, or great consequence. As it currently stands, the recent preliminary assessments do not look good.