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Why We Can't Be Friends

The other day I received a request from another Vancouver Observer columnist to be my Facebook friend. I turned him down.

I’m sure he’s a nice guy. His columns are well-written and interesting. But I’ve never met him; never corresponded with him; never talked to him on the phone. We don’t share any personal experiences or memories. So how can he be a friend of mine?

I realize that the word “friend” as used by Facebook is different from how I use it. On Facebook, a “friend” is anyone who you give permission to share your personal information. To me, a friend is someone with whom I have bonded in some way -- as one dictionary definition puts it, “a person you know well and regard with affection and trust”.

Because of this clash between Facebook’s and my own definition of friend, I don’t have many Facebook friends. I have no desire to share information, gripes, updates and observations with casual acquaintances, people who went to the same schools I did or participated in the same social activist causes. Sorry, if you’re not a friend of mine in real life, you’re not going to be my friend on Facebook.

A couple of reasons for this:

  1. I don’t trust Facebook. Yes, it has improved its privacy features in some ways (and made them worse in others). But these features are still difficult to access and besides, Facebook is a privately held, for-profit American company. It’s not in business out of altruism, but to make money. And it makes more money if it can sell access to your information to advertisers.
  2. Sometimes what I say on Facebook is going to be foolish, or angry or silly. I can do that with my friends, because they know me and my moods. But I can’t do it with people I don’t know.

(By the way, CBC columnist Heather Mallick says this much more eloquently in her column than I did. You can read her views at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2010/01/21/f-vp-mallick.html.)

I realize I'm probably in the minority on this. I know one guy (a friend of mine in real life) who has 527 Facebook friends. He freely shares his birthdate, spouse, political views and other information on the site. He brags about the number of friends he has, and the famous people among them, such as Yoko Ono, Billy Bragg and Tommy Douglas (who died in 1986, I believe).

It’s getting more and more difficult to maintain our vestiges of privacy as the world becomes increasingly digitized. It may be a losing battle, but I'll keep fighting. So sorry, if you ask to be my Facebook friend, and you’re not my real-life friend, I’m going to turn you down. It’s nothing personal. No, that's wrong, it’s completely personal.

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