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Facebook hates me.
I used to think of Facebook as a sort of friend to the friendless. Whatever its societal shortcomings, I reasoned, at least by redefining the term "friend" to mean "any being capable of hitting the 'accept' button on a computer screen" Facebook put friendship - or something like it - within reach of just about everybody, no matter how awkward, ugly, or generally unappealing they might be.
In other words, it was the perfect place for me.
But even that at-least-it's-better-than-drinking-poison quality was dashed against the cyber-rocks of reality the other day when I opened my Facebook page and was slapped in the kisser by this stark accusation:
Note the presumptive nature of that second line: "You've been sending friend requests to people who don't know you." Well, how does Facebook know that? I am perfectly willing to accept that I may have been sending friend requests to people who don't want to say they know me, but I'm not at all sure Facebook is in possession of all the facts in this matter.
Here's how it works: Assume you've got a handful of Facebook friends. When you click on a friend's picture, you get a list of all their friends, and next to each one is a big button that says,
Now, to me, that's an invitation, right? Well, apparently not right. If you click that button and the person on the other end doesn't know you from Adam - or doesn't remember you from high school, or turns out to just be someone with a name similar to that of an old acquaintance - your would-be friend is asked the question: "Do you know [YOU!] outside of Facebook?" A "No" response sets off a screaming alarm at Facebook Headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., prompting a sludge-covered hate note like the one that awaited me at my desk.
More insidious is the "People You May Know" notification that pops up just below the list of people asking to be your friend. Right now, at this moment, Facebook is tempting me to "add friend" Eric Clapton.
Well, I think Eric Clapton is awesome, but really, after what I've been through I'm not going to touch Eric Clapton with a 10-foot mouse.
Alas, Facebook wasn't through with stripping away any vestiges of my positive self-image. First it wouldn't let me leave the page until I checked off a box acknowledging the penalty for sending "Friend requests to people who don't know me" - an act that sent my psyche flying back to third grade, when Mrs. Quinn made me stand in the corner for looking ahead in the reader. Then, Facebook directed me to another page, this one more harrowing than the first:
"These people," the text declared, "haven't responded to your request. Would you like to cancel these?"
And there, stacked 35 deep, was a roll call of people to whom I had extended the hand of Facebook friendship; all of whom had callously rejected me. If you're reading this, you know who you are, and shame on you. But heartbreaking as it was, a darker, more soul-shattering truth lay beneath: At least one person on that list had punched the "I don't know this person" button - most likely known internally at Facebook as the "Alert the authorities I am being stalked by a madman" button.
Was it an old schoolmate who had utterly forgotten me? Someone I'd worked with in a previous job (to be fair, most of them are journalists, and a good number of their brains have long since been fried)? Okay, Judi Dench was there, and I confess she doesn't know me, but her contact was legitimately gotten off the "friend" list of a veteran columnist who had kindly befriended me, Facebook style. And anyway I doubt Dame Judi has the time or inclination to go blacklisting members of the public who try to befriend her. She seems nicer than that.
"Most people," the notation at the top of the page continued, "cancel their pending friend requests to avoid being blocked from sending requests in the future."
Sitting starkly at the bottom of the page was a button labeled "Cancel Requests." I ran my eyes up and down the Judas List one last time. " Et tu, Brute?" I whispered, and hit the button.
Still, Facebook was not through with me. Yet another page of shame appeared on my screen.
"Remember," it taunted, "you should only send friend requests to people you have a real-world connection with."
That "real world" is, I suppose, far removed from the fantasy world in which I live; the one where old friends remember me, or where celebrities - who pretend to be my friend when I pay money to see their movies or buy their books - list themselves on Facebook because they actually want people to contact them.
I consulted the resident Social Media expert here in the office, and she explained to me that Facebook is lately trying to head off companies that use the site as a marketing tool, blanketing it with scurrilous "friend" requests. The poisoned dart of a pop-up screen I got is part of the campaign to root out Web evildoers. One way to try and avoid the blackball, she said, is to send a message along with each friend request, something to the effect: "Please do not be afraid. I mean you no harm." Also explain who the heck you are.
I was hurt for a little while, and then I began to get mad. Am I crazy, or for the longest time didn't we keep hearing from folks who were proud of their thousands of Facebook Friends? When Facebook was trying to elbow past My Space for web supremacy, I didn't read any quotes from Mark Zuckerberg urging moderation in our friend-making pursuits.
The New York Times reported in 2010 that Facebook itself allows you to have "only" 5,000 friends. Really? Just 5,000?
Now, after forever cheapening the notion of a "Friend," Facebook wants to walk it back. We ought to let them, really. We ought to demand it, actually.
I pored over the Facebook page where my friends are listed (283), and I'm satisfied that I know, or have at least met, all of them - and that includes my son's cat Georgie Fruit (feel free to friend him). I took some solace in that, especially when after hearing about my bad morning my wife Carolyn wrote on my page, "I'm your forever friend - Facebook or anywhere."
So who cares if I had to delete Judi? Who cares if Facebook banishes me to the Realm of the Facebook Friendless? I've got all the friends I need.