This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
by Larry Magid
Remember the TV show “Friends”? These were people who knew each other well. They lived together, played together and shared happy and sad moments. The regulars in the sitcom “Cheers” were also friends, mostly. Even though the only thing some of them did together was sit around a bar drinking beer, they at least had that in common.
There was a time when a “friend” was someone you really knew and presumably liked. You would get together with friends over coffee, chat on the phone and maybe exchange letters if you became separated by distance. But thanks first to services like Friendster and MySpace and now Facebook, the word “friend” has been redefined.
I can only speak for myself, but I don’t have a lot of real-life friends. I lead a busy life and there are relatively few people with whom I share intimate thoughts or get together with just so we can be together. The friends I have are precious to me and my closest friends are people I’ve known for a long time.
But I have lots of Facebook “friends.” Some of them I really do know and genuinely like. Most of my family and real-life friends are also my Facebook friends along with people I went to high school and college with. There are also former workmates from past jobs and folks I’ve met at conferences and trade shows. I’m not likely to go out of my way to actually hang out in the real world with most of these folks, but I have shaken their hand at least once and have at least something in common with them.
I also have some Facebook friends I’ve never met but still feel some kinship with. For example, I work as a CBS News consultant, which means I’m part of a large network of journalists scattered around the world. I’ve never met many of these colleagues, but I feel connected to them and when I do meet one of them, there are always things to talk about because we share a common bond.
But many of my Facebook “friends” really aren’t friends. Some of them I might have met at some event but have no recollection of who they are. Others might be “friends of friends,” which is actually a category of friending on Facebook that’s predicated on the notion that if you’re a friend of someone’s friend, you have enough in common to perhaps strike up your own friendship. I realize that notion is based partially on real-life experiences, but I’m not so sure mutual friendships have the same meaning online as they do in the “real world.”
And then there are those friend requests from people I know nothing about. As a journalist I’m comfortable with that. I’m flattered when readers and listeners want to reach out and I accept all friend requests because it’s a way to interact with folks and let them know when I’ve written something new. I even appreciate messages in which people tell me they disagree with something I’ve said or written. Hearing from a diverse group of people is a perk of having a public life, but it’s still not the same thing as a friendship.
That’s why I was glad about Facebook’s announcement last week that it’s adding a “subscribe feature” that enables people to follow other people (a la Twitter) without having to friend them. Anyone can add a subscribe button to their “news feed,” so that they can share posts with the public. It’s ideal for bloggers, politicians, community activists, merchants, restaurateurs or anyone else who has something to say to their “public,” whether that turns out to be a handful of people or several million.
By default, you’re already subscribed to your friends’ news feeds. But with this new feature you can get updates from anyone who puts the button on their page. The button is purely optional, and the only posts you’ll see are ones that are designated as Public. To avoid getting too much information, subscribers can control what they see, ranging from all updates to “important updates.” And just because you’re a subscriber doesn’t mean you can’t interact. People who allow subscription have the option to let people leave comments.
To some extent, the subscribe feature puts Facebook on par with both Twitter and Google+. Twitter users can follow people who don’t follow them and Google (GOOG)+ users can put someone in a Circle and see their public posts without having to get permission or “friend” that person.
Maybe, thanks to this new feature, the word “friend” can reclaim its original meaning. We can hear from each other, we can interact, we can even like each other, but we don’t have to fake being friends. You can “subscribe” to my Facebook feed at www.Facebook.com/LarryMagid.