Yesterday, I posted that I would start treating my Facebook network of friends as a “public” — a group of people who share my interests, pay attention to me, on occasion communicate with me, and have the potential for joining me in collective action. Some, but not all, are people I have met face-to-face. Some, but not all, are actually friends in my daily life. Most, at this point, are people who have read one of my books (two of which, Tools for Thought and The Virtual Community have been online for over a decade) or heard me speak, or were students in one of my classes. These are not faceless “fans.” I think of them as colleagues. On just about any topic I write about, I’ve grown accustomed to learning that at least one of my readers knows far more about it than I do. All this is mostly a delight to me. I have spent my entire professional career as a communicator. I try to understand something important about the world around me and to communicate that to others in some way — originally, exclusively in the form of the written word, but increasingly as curriculum or videos or interviews or public lectures. I started in this calling — I guess I would have been more financially successful if I had ever thought of it as a “business” — at age 23, and now I’m 60. For the first couple of decades, I sent out query letters with stamped, self-addressed envelopes and never heard from any readers other than editors. Until I plugged a 1200 baud modem into my telephone in 1982 or 83, I never really heard from anyone who had read anything I wrote. In the past twenty years, I’ve communicated with plenty of people via online discussions or email. I try to respond to every email I get from someone who has a sincere interest in my work or a question to ask that is related to my work. Needless to say, this takes up a lot of my time. But as I said, communicating is a calling for me. When I started teaching a few years ago, I joined Facebook. It was so essential to my students’ lives that I felt that I had to learn about it. And then it opened to the world and people I had known in previous phases of my life began showing up, and it became a way to stay in touch with them. And then people who had read my writing or attended a lecture or who follow this blog began making friend requests. Not only did it seem ungracious of me to refuse these requests, Facebook seemed to me to be another natural channel for communicating with people who have things to tell me and teach me as well as hear from me and learn from me. Life online has always involved far more diffuse reciprocity than quid-pro-quo — it doesn’t matter that I am spending my time answering a question from a stranger who has never done anything for me, for I know from experience that ten other strangers are likely to answer my questions when I pose them online.
But as I blogged yesterday, the small number of people I friended when Facebook was more private and the people who friended me because we share some offline connection have become outnumbered by people who know me exclusively through my work. Why should I ditch all these readers who have been generous with their attention? However, danah boyd, who I cited as one of my sources in learning about the nature of publics online, pointed out that when I promiscuously accept friend requests I am exposing my friends and public to strangers through my actions. This is a legitimate concern, and I’ve decided to opt for openness — and to try to seek informed consent from those who join my public
If you friend me, you will find that a large network of people who don’t really know me in real life will have some access to information about you. If you get friend requests from people who are part of my social graph, please don’t assume that they are actually my friends or that I endorse them. If you are not comfortable with the exposure that being a Facebook friend of mine brings to your profile, unfriend me — I won’t feel slighted. Yes, I’m aware that this is, in part, the kind of somewhat inadequate “opt out” system that Facebook is sometimes criticized for springing on its users. However, except for a relatively small number of people who I actively friended — and who I will begin to get in touch with, personally — most people in my Facebook network have made the unsolicited choice to friend me. This message is to warn you of the potential consequences to your privacy of being listed as a friend of mine.
(Today, for example, I heard from a young fellow in Austria who friended me yesterday, and suspected that my decision was prompted by his communication, and a woman in France who had attended a seminar I had conducted at the Sorbonne several years ago.)