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The unforseen impact of online “friendships”

June 24, 2011

I was speaking for a group yesterday on the topic of “Overcoming Failure to Educate,” and afterwards one of the audience members came up to me and shared a story that really drove home a point that I’m guessing many of us really don’t think about: be careful who you “friend.”

Now, I’m sure most of us are conscious of certain types of people who may request online friendship and we accept/ignore them based on our own internal radar. But let me tell you this story and see if it doesn’t impact your thinking a bit.

It seems a teen was applying for a job as security guard for the local Port Authority.  He was a high school graduate, decent kid, kept himself out of trouble.  Apparently a good candidate by all reason. During the interview, he was asked by the recruiter if he had ever been incarcerated or if  any of his friends had been or were presently. The teen answered “no.”  To his knowledge, none of his friends had ever run afoul of the law. The recruiter asked him again if he was SURE none of them had any criminal history or were currently doing time.  The teen answered again “No.”  The recruiter then pulls out a copy of the teen’s Facebook page, with two of his 900+ “friends” highlighted. Turns out they were both presently being held in jail for varying crimes.  The teen immediately responds that he has no idea who these people are…and you can see where this is going…the recruiter asks him “Then why are you listing them as ‘friends’ on your Facebook page?”

He didn’t get the job.

Many of us have a wide following in social media because of what we do or causes we represent or “like.”  Thee’s a train of thought that says, “Go ahead and accept anyone who wants to be a friend, and if they become a problem later, you can always drop them.” But the story above really makes you stop and think. You certainly can’t “know” much about 5000 friends you may have in your social media circle. What if someone is doing a background check on you for a position or opportunity, and they find you have someone “problematic” in that circle?  You may be able to explain it away by saying you aren’t responsible for the actions of people who “follow” you, but it almost sounds worse to say you are just indiscriminately accepting requests of anyone who wants to connect with you, even if that IS common practice today.

I don’t have a real ready solution or answer to this. For myself, I am careful whose friend requests I accept. I generally do check out their profiles, and there are people whose requests I have blocked, for varying reasons. I’m also more likely to feel comfortable accepting the request if they have included a personal message citing some reason why they think we should connect such as mutual friends, specific interests in common, or maybe a regional proximity. But, honestly, I don’t know many of the people who ask for connections; some I do get to know better online. Some I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting later in person.  But, I can’t “know” their complete history or what they do in their “offline” life.

Yes, this is a risk we take even with in-person relationships. While we think we can judge people pretty well, the media is rife with stories of people who have been duped by others they believed they “knew.” But the problem becomes compounded online both because of access and quantity, as well as the lack of opportunity to “get to know one another” with all five senses engaged.

And, it almost goes without saying that our children are particularly vulnerable in this area as our story shows. Collecting friends is both a fun pastime as well as, sadly, a sign of popularity. The friends you are picking — or that are picking you — may have an unforseen impact on your life, both short- and longer-term.  We counsel our kids to be careful who you pick as your friends…but most of us don’t really think about the friends they are accepting online.

I would love your input on how you handle this issue, both for yourself and for your kids, if you have them. As I said, there’s probably no “one perfect answer,” but I’m sure many of you have strategies that are both safe and not too-restrictive. We do want to widen our networks, but it should be to ours — and our friends’ — mutual benefit, not to our detriment. We have to be both socially smart and savvy to make the right decisions.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 28, 2011 4:22 am

    Thank you for this post. I am printing it out for my boy to read. ~M

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