A new friend on Facebook

A few days ago, I received a friend request from someone I’m fairly certain I’ve never met face-to-face. It’s not the first time, and I’m open to these kinds of requests.

But before accepting any new friend requests, I usually check to see how we’re connected, if at all.

How many friends do we have in common? What kinds of posts is my new friend making? Is my new friend “new” to Facebook? (Tip: A relatively new Facebook profile is usually a red flag.)

Here’s what I found:

My new friend is from Northeast Ohio — so in my neighborhood, generally speaking.

We have more than 150 friends in common.

On his wall were pictures of his children and some random jokes.

Turns out we’re both fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So, I took a chance and welcomed him in to view the profile information I’ve opened up for “friends” to see.

Of course, I still don’t really know this person. We may not even recognize each other in a face-to-face setting, let alone call each other friend.

Thanks to Facebook, we’ve been forced to redefine the term “friend.” The traditional definition of friend, according to the Webster dictionary, “is a person who you like and enjoy being with.”

For some reason, I’m friends with the local Dairy Queen. Yes, I like and enjoy being with Dairy Queen. But I don’t think this is what Webster had in mind.

If you’re on Facebook, do a quick scan of your list of friends. There are probably people (and businesses) on that list that you like, and would enjoy being with.

But would you classify them as friends? Probably not.

This is because we just don’t have the mental capacity for maintaining stable relationships with that many people. We’re not built to sustain a large number of friends.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, suggests there’s a limit to how many names and faces our brain can process. According to Dunbar, we can only maintain about 150 stable relationships — knowing who people are, and how they’re connected to other people in our circle of friends.

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from looking for and accepting new friends.

Regardless of mental capacity, making new friends in social media is easy. But it comes with risks.

If you’re accepting new, unknown friends, always answer these important questions before accepting requests:

Who is this new person? Read public posts or send a direct message and ask for more information. You may not know why this person wants to follow you, but you’ll know a little more about her or him.

What do you have in common (including friends, family)? This may lead you to mental connections your brain refuses to make. Liking the same music and books is a good way to predict how strong the connection might be.

Where does this new person live? If this person lives in a country you’ve never visited and have no connection to, be careful. The request might be an attempt to phish for information.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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