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Don't take candy or friend requests from strangers

Do you really look at who is requesting you as a connection or friend before you click to accept? A question came to us the other day about being a little too relaxed about requesting and accepting friends. A perplexed reader writes:

Q: My 18-year-old college freshman niece recently ramped up activity on her Facebook page. I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that she’s far away from home and can sit up at all hours online in a way she couldn't do back home.

Anyway, one of her first moves upon learning I was on Facebook was to send me a friends invitation. Of course, I accepted it. But then she proceeded to contact several of my adult male friends – people whose names/profiles she saw on my friends list – and invited them to be her friends.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned or over-protective, but I had a huge problem with my teenage niece reaching out to guys in their late 20s, early-to-mid 30s, and so on, to be "friends" with them online.

I don’t want to be the old curmudgeon uncle, and tell her something outdated like "it’s unbecoming of a young lady..."  - something our great grandmother might have said to us.

But something about those friend requests she made bugs me. In several cases, my buddies are married or in serious committed relationships. I asked each one of them what the deal was, and they all said they never look at friend requests to see who they’re from. They just hit the accept button and keep moving. I haven’t said anything to my niece, ‘cause I’m still not sure yet if I’m overreacting.

A: You're not overreacting. It's one thing to friend people who are acquaintances. I have 420 friends. When I request someone as a friend, it's just to keep in touch. As my 24-year-old roommate once explained it, friending someone just means: "Hey, if you die, I'd like to be notified of it."

But it's a whole different story if she never met your friends. There are lots of spammers with fake accounts on Facebook and MySpace who only friend strangers. It's happened to me a few times where I never met the person, I have no friends in common with that person, and yet they requested my friendship so I would go on their page and see the spammy sex site links on the profile. It's amazing how many people just accept the friendship to complete strangers.

And most people who do that get reported. A stranger she friends might report her if they think she's a spammer by requesting people she doesn't know. In the worst case scenario, she could lose her Facebook account (I doubt that would happen). And at the very least, she is perceived as being creepy.   

It's not proper for her to just grow her collection of friends from your friends list when she doesn't even know these people. It also makes you look bad with your network for having a niece that is pestering all your friends. If she doesn't care about looking weird, then she should care that it makes you look bad for having an annoying niece. If you want to approach her about it, I would suggest making that point.

There's also the option of using privacy settings to keep her from seeing any of your friends.

And what is the deal with these friends of yours accepting her request without knowing who she is? I'm guessing they see that they have you as a common friend. And then they think: "Am I supposed to know that girl? Maybe I do and I forgot. I don't want to be rude and ignore it in case I did actually meet her before."

But it's OK to not accept a friend request from someone you don't know! It's your profile. You have to be choosy who sees it. And that's coming from the gal with way too many '"friends."

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But I like candy!

This is definitely a generational divide.

Why not accept as many friends requests as possible, if that's what you're into? If you're not a bot, and only doing it passively as this girl is no doubt doing, there's no harm in getting kicked off Facebook. Sure, you may be expose to inappropriate adult content, but honey I got news for you: If you've got the Internet, you've probably seen worse. (The ever-popular film featuring a couple ladies with a water-holding device comes to mind.)

There is always the possibility of unbecoming adult-kid flirtation occurring. But this girl is 18! All bets are off. And with her away at college, I can assure you, she's got plenty of opportunities in real life, let alone online, to be chatted up by random weirdos.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just young-fashioned. But you can't keep them locked away in a cage forever. (I mean, you can, I guess. But, at least in this case, you haven't.) Once the genie's out of that bottle, well, it's probably going to get rubbed the wrong way.

I think, perhaps, that this issue might have been blown a wee bit out of proportion.

I don't think it's creepy for a college-aged female to be friending people - random or not - on a social networking website. Hello, MySpace anyone? Oftentimes online "friends" are really just used as a popularity statistic, and unless this niece is actually contacting these older males (via messages/wall posts/etc) I wouldn't concern myself over it.

And if you're concerned over how you niece's frivolous friending might reflect upon you, Facebook is hardly a standard for professionalism and modesty (we're talking about a gigantic, jazzed-up web blog, after all) - no one should care.

Amanda and Brayden, I see your points. And I agree she’s not really doing anything wrong. It doesn't make you a creepy person if you have a Pokemon attitude to social networks and want to collect as many friends as possible so you look popular. But friending someone you never met before is a MySpace mentality that I don't share, and to me it's immature.

But, is it poor social networking etiquette? Yes, if her uncle told her that he was upset about what she is doing with his friends list.

Once again, it goes back to just privatizing your friends list if this weirds you out. People can do what they want, and in her world, there’s nothing wrong with collecting strangers as friends. If you provide the information, people can do what they want with it. (Doesn't mean they should, but they can.)

It's not an issue about what adult content this niece is coming across or if she looks like a werid spammer friending strangers. The issue is that it is weirding out the uncle, and if he doesn't want her to collect friends from his list, then he should say something or limit what she can access on his profile.

I'm open to hearing more thoughts on this. Am I completely off base here?

Bridget, I'm with you -- but I'm big on boundaries! I think it veers to the creepy side as well. And I think it's up to the uncle to limit his friends list.

I think I probably tend to veer to the creepy side...

Maybe she actually knows these people. Maybe she met them at her uncle's birthday party. Maybe she has spent time with them on a family trip. I don't see anything wrong in friending people you know, whether they are much older, or even younger, than you are. I think the uncle is overreacting.

Marielle - I agree with you that if she met these people before then there is absolutely nothing wrong with friending them. I just got the impression from the question that she was friending people she never met before.

The uncle is reacting the way any self-respecting uncle would. He’s aware of the heartache and thousand natural shocks that could arise from his niece becoming more than facebook friends with his buddies. A close reading of his final paragraph makes this clear. His gut is telling him there’s something wrong with that picture.

Maybe he doesn’t want to hang out with his boys, drinking beer, watching a game and have his 18-year-old niece show up. He likely wants to keep a certain distance from his niece.

The uncle needs to have a face-to-face chat with his niece and hash it all out. Taking the aggressive step of suddenly limiting his profile will send the wrong message to the niece and possibly damage their relationship.

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