The Facebook Commandments

How to deal with unwanted friend requests, the ethics of de-friending, and other social networking etiquette predicaments.

Reihan Salam was online on Sept. 27 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Last week, I launched the Great Facebook Purge of 2007. In one fell swoop, I whittled down a list of 274 “friends” to a more manageable … um, 258. Even weeding out this tiny amount of people was difficult and unpleasant. Almost every subtraction made me wince. While my intention had been to de-friend every hanger-on and casual acquaintance, I just couldn’t do it. All I could stomach is eliminating everyone I’ve literally never met in my life. I still have three “friends” I know only via e-mail, though given that we’re firmly in the Digital Age, I figure this is acceptable.

Chances are you’ve faced a similar dilemma. At around 40 million members, from high schoolers to middle managers to old folks, Facebook is now one of the most popular Web tools. Facebook makes it easier to keep in touch with old friends, track your acquaintances’ every minuscule movement, and learn that all of your “cool” pals love Grandma’s Boy more than life itself. There is a downside to the site’s sudden rise to ubiquity. If you’ve been on Facebook for more than a week, you’ve probably gotten a friend request from someone you don’t know, someone you hate, or someone you don’t want snooping around your profile. Before promiscuous friending turns into a full-blown crisis, it’s about time we came up with some basic guidelines for social networking etiquette.

What should you do when someone you don’t like or don’t know sends you a friend request?

Most of you will hold your nose and accept the request. But why? This is like allowing a corsair-wielding pirate to board your vessel without a fight. Once you’ve accepted too many faux friends, Facebook becomes a real slog. One of the site’s great strengths is that it allows you to manage privacy settings: Do you want everyone you went to college with to see your photos, or only actual friends? That ability to customize is great, but once you’ve accepted someone as a friend, policing these subtle gradations can be a drag.

There’s also an information overload problem. When your friends update their profiles, the new info filters out to you via the News Feed, a constantly updated digest of seemingly mundane facts that can, over time, give you a neat, evolving portrait of your friends’ outer lives. (And, of course, your updates also filter out, so anyone who cares will eventually discover, say, your affinity for Grandma’s Boy.) The further your online social graph veers from your real social life, the less useful your News Feed becomes. Soon you’ll find that most of the headlines are about people you barely know. And who wants that?

So, back to that unwanted friend request. Assuming there will be no social fallout, just ignore it. They probably won’t notice, particularly if we’re dealing with a promiscuous friender. (You know, the kind of person who thinks, “I need to break 700 friends so I can rid myself of my crippling sense of shame.” Trust me, it won’t work.) And if you fear a backlash, just say,

Um, hey, this is really awkward, but I actually only accept friend requests from other Muslims. Allah commands it. Sorry, man.

I find this works pretty well. If you are very fetching, it’s possible that your would-be friend is—let’s be frank—cyber-stalking you. This behavior is so pervasive as to be almost unremarkable, but that doesn’t make it right. Ignore the request or, if you must, apply a privacy setting that will keep prying eyes at bay.

What about work colleagues whom you don’t want in your personal business?

There is no easy answer to this. Basically, you’re screwed. If you work for a huge company and the person is totally random, you’re fine: Ignore. If it’s your boss, well, how gutsy are you? Any boss with a sense of decency will not friend you. If you accept the request, slap a limited information block on her. Keep in mind that any boss clueless enough to friend you will be clueless enough not to understand that you’ve applied these restrictions.

Is it OK to de-friend someone?

Say you’ve been too generous with your friending policy, and a gaggle of strangers is now hogging your News Feed. You too can launch a Great Facebook Purge. The beauty of this is that no headline or notification pops up in your ex-friend’s inbox announcing, “You’ve suffered a humiliating rejection at the hands of _________.” It’s all very stealthy, thus making it the perfect way to deal with promiscuous frienders.

But what if your so-called friend scans through their friend list and notices that you’ve gone missing? First off, anyone who is policing their Facebook account this rigorously is morbidly obsessed and thus best kept at arm’s length. If she confronts you about it, the best strategy is to plead ignorance: Perhaps the site’s massive growth has led to some unexpected technical difficulties? Re-friend, then wait at least six months before trying another de-friending.

How do you decide whether it’s OK to friend someone?

After all, it’s always better to be the rejecter rather than the rejectee. I will now contradict myself: Friending strangers is permissible. If you are going to approach a stranger, don’t do it out of the blue. Never, ever send a random friend request without undergoing some preliminaries, such as trading a few wry observations. The beauty of this “Facebook foreplay,” to use an unfortunate analogy, is that you can always refuse to respond.

Had I not sent just such a random missive many moons ago, I never would have met Reyhan Harmanci. This was way back in 2003, when Friendster was all the rage. I noticed that she was friends with about a dozen of my friends and that she was my homonym. For those of us with obscure, highly foreign, or otherwise odd names, this is no joke. I also sensed that we occupied similar spaces in the social pecking order: small, ethnic, and extremely lovable, not unlike pandas. Despite never having met in person, I felt compelled to drop her a line. After a few back-and-forth messages, we quickly formed the “Re_han Club” and became bosom friends. While I was writing the piece, Reyhan—no longer a stranger—sent me a Facebook friend request, which I enthusiastically accepted.

How long should you wait to send a friend request to someone you’ve just met?

Say you chat someone up at a dinner party. You have a brief but intense conversation about the mostly unseen Kevin Costner thriller Mr. Brooks that leads you to believe she’d be a good person to have in your cyber-circle. Perhaps you trade business cards or e-mail addresses. While you never quite make it to comparing tattoos, bobbing for apples, or other intimacies limited to close friendships, you sense that friendship could indeed blossom at some future date. Why not send a very meek and humble friend request?

Hey, this is _________. We met briefly at __________. This is a little presumptuous, but your awe-inspiring Sudoku skills compel me to ask: Do you think we can be cyber-friends?

This is a little like asking someone out on a first date, but way less threatening. The same logic applies: Send the message soon (within a day or two) after your initial meeting, so the object of your friend-crush has some idea who the heck you are. Keep in mind that your would-be friend has every right to ignore you. You were bending her ear about Mr. Brooks, after all.

What’s the right number of Facebook friends?

It all depends on context. Noted anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that the mean clique—a group of primary social partners—consists of around 12 people. Average maximum network size—a group of real friends plus friends of friends—is around 150. I don’t know about you, but most of my primary clique isn’t on Facebook. My social graph and my social life overlap, but not nearly as much as they would if all of my close friends were on Facebook.

That’s why college students find Facebook so addictive. An undergrad who doesn’t have a Facebook profile is regarded as a Luddite, the social equivalent of leading a survivalist lifestyle complete with flintlock rifle and bandana. In this case, Facebook works as it should. Even if you have 700 friends, the site susses out your real bosom buddies—they post on your wall, they trade messages with you, and they pop up on your News Feed way more often.

While college kids can get away with huge numbers of friends, the geezers among us should be a little more selective. And by “geezers,” I mean everyone born before Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. A group of 150 Facebook friends, right around Dunbar’s maximum network size, will let you feel comfortable about broadcasting your status, whether it’s “Reihan Salam is triumphantly pumping his fists” or “Reihan Salam is slowly dying of dengue fever.”

Of course, even after the Great Facebook Purge of 2007 I still have 258 friends. In theory, a huge number of friends means you’re really, really popular. In reality, the omnidirectionally friendly typically strike us as untrustworthy and maybe even a little lame. What can I say—I am a very friendly fellow. Adjust your privacy settings accordingly.