[Air-l] Facebook protests

Ledbetter, Andrew Michael aledbett at ku.edu
Thu Sep 7 08:21:14 PDT 2006

>What's interesting is that the people who seem to be joining the protest groups are those who have a large number of >friends (200-plus), and also those who might have accepted invitations to be friends when the other person was an >acquaintance of sorts.

As an interpersonal communication scholar observing the Facebook changes and subsequent user response, I am intrigued by Facebook's use of the term "friend". Zuckerberg's blog post defending the changes (pointed out by a previous poster:  http://blog.facebook.com/) turns on the word: Only "friends" can see your changes, "friends" could see them before, it's a good thing to share your life with your "friends". And so on.
Yet, as we know intuitively (and a wealth of personal relationship research and theory indicates), not all friendships are equal in intimacy, social meaning, and (most critically) information flow. Petronio's communication privacy management theory seems very apt here: the theory claims that people specify boundaries and rules for how and what information is shared with others, and experience distress when those boundaries and rules are violated. Facebook rewrote the site's rules for information flow between people---and, as the theory predicts, distress ensued.
Quite simply, it seems to me that the site's designed have forgotten that the term "friend", as used by Facebook, is a metaphor. The metaphor includes all different kinds of friends---casual friends, close friends, best friends, acquaintances, former friends---and lumps in with them coworkers, classmates, relatives, teachers (much to some students' dismay), and people that you only invited to be your "friend" as a status symbol. Facebook permits no meaningful differentiation between these categories (other than a note specifying how you know the person, which does not influence information flow). Thus, while information privacy is an important construct in this debate, it seems that, here, the construct cannot be divorced from the meaning attached to such information within the context of specific interpersonal relationships. And Facebook's site design doesn't seem to map onto the topography of most people's daily relationships very well.
Andrew M. Ledbetter
Doctoral Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant
Department of Communication Studies
University of Kansas 

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