I’ve had a very interesting and insightful discussion with my wife over the past few days about Facebook and its use of psychology. Not necessarily in how it’s redefining social interactions (that’s a well-trodden topic), but in its use of terms (words and their definitions).

Let me start by elaborating how I’ve been using Facebook and how we came to have this discussion in the first place.

When I started using Facebook in November, I made some decisions about who I would connect with. If someone was an acquaintance of mine in college that I knew casually through a student organization, if I had only met them once or twice 10 years ago, or if they were a co-worker that I really didn’t feel like adding to my friends roster, their invites would get ignored. It seemed like a safe strategy: Facebook calmly assures you in its FAQs that an ignored friend invitation won’t be seen by the person who sent it (although they can figure it out with subtle clues, like noticing that you have the “Add As Friend” button again vs. the “Friend Request Pending” note when they look you up in a mutual friend’s list). So, I arrived with the expectation that, hey, it’s my network and my choice, so there should be no guilt or indecision involved; end of story. It’s only Facebook, after all. This should be cut and dry.

Not so fast. First, there were the co-workers. As you may have noticed, once your organization is off for a holiday, everyone jumps on Facebook to see who else is there. Since I decided to connect with a few colleagues I know pretty well (and actually associate with outside the office), the co-workers they’re mutually friends with started sending requests to be my “friend”.  There are plenty of articles out there that talk about Facebook etiquette with co-workers (aside from the obvious “don’t be friends with your boss”) and how to deftly handle their peals to be your “friend”. I hesitated with a few of the requests, but quickly came back to my initial decisions and moved along.

Then, an old friend from college with whom I had a rather nasty ending many years ago asked to be my “friend”. I had been expecting this ever since I arrived on Facebook; a very good (in real life) friend of mine still talks with them on a regular basis. First, I got the “poke” from them (which I’m not sure if this is truly meant to be as annoying as it sounds). When someone “pokes” you, it’s a very small notice off to the side. Hiding a poke is a simple decision with no consequences. However, after posting a comment in my (in real life) friend’s feed, I got the request, which I had been secretly dreading.

Dreading? That was an unexpected reaction. I thought perhaps that this feeling was because of our history (our falling out took place at a turning point in my life). My wife was annoyed by my inconsistency: if this person and I had our “breakup” years ago, why was I agonizing over being their “friend” on Facebook? Shouldn’t it have been a simple decision? I even made the absurd statement that I should talk to my (in real life) friend to ask what they thought I should do, to which my wife replied, “It’s friggin’ Facebook!”

What was I thinking? This sounds like a scene from a sitcom, for Heaven’s sake.

My wife blames Facebook’s use of terminology: how everyone is your “friend”, how you have to make the decision to “accept” or “ignore” invites, and the associated perceptions behind that (“what will So-and-So think if I ignore their friend request?”). In her mind, Facebook is well aware of the loaded connotations those words carry, and is actively employing psychology to attract users and keep them active within the network.

I really hadn’t considered this aspect before. My first love in social media is Twitter, which is far more informal in its connections and interactions. Other networks, such as LinkedIn, seem to have a pretty clear or specific purpose why you’re there in the first place. I never gave a second thought to who I was tied to in either network. My wife’s clear insight (she’s a very light Facebook user who sparingly posts) inspired me to give these relationships closer examination.

Think about it. Look at all the folks you have as Facebook friends right now. Who are they? If you looked at each and every one carefully, are they really all “friends” in the true sense? What you most likely have is a collection of friends, relatives, acquaintances, professional contacts, old classmates, co-workers, lovers, former lovers, your spouse, etc. They are not all friends (well, hopefully your spouse is your friend).

Of course, you can make lists, call them whatever you want, and add folks to them, but Facebook still refers to them as “friends”. They are your “friend”, you both have “mutual friends”, you probably found them on someone else’s “friend list”, and Facebook constantly suggests other “friends” for you.

You see the faces of your “friends” (or avatars, which are still personal in nature) alongside their name whenever they appear in your feed (I know you can hide folks in your feed, but if you’re doing that, why be their “friend” in the first place?). People unconsciously respond to faces; in print and web design, showing faces increases the humanity, personality, and connection with the service or product being offered. Even if you’re not actively connected to someone in your day-to-day relationships, seeing their name and face paired together on Facebook can be the trigger that makes you click the “Add As Friend” button.

To top it all off, there’s that dreaded decision to “accept” or “ignore” new friend requests. We don’t want to be seen as a jerk or curmudgeon, do we? The requests can elicit an emotional reaction when there’s a shared history, as I experienced. It must not be such an existential struggle for everyone, though: there’s statistics about how frequently people accept friend requests from folks they’ve never even met, simply because that request was made in the first place.

This is all getting very personal, isn’t it? The terms used by Facebook add a level of intimacy to these relationships that very likely didn’t exist in your life. We all like to have friends, but becoming someone’s friend (as opposed to an acquaintance or co-worker) adds layers of social context. Most, if not all of us, crave acceptance and resent being ignored. We know how these experiences feel, but they don’t all exist at the same level with everyone we know.

I don’t hate Facebook for doing all of this; it is their business model, after all, and they know exactly what they’re doing. I’m glad the discussion with my wife made me take a step back and become more aware of what happens in our minds when we interact with social networks. This understanding is vitally important, not only from a professional standpoint (which channel should our business use to connect with our customers?), but from a personal one as well (why am I making such a big deal about a friend request, anyway?).

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it a valid viewpoint or a useless mind exercise? Oh, and please don’t be offended if I ignore your friend request on Facebook; it’s nothing personal.

Update (April 23, 2010): I noticed today that Facebook changed some language in their e-mail notices for friend requests. They used to say “John Smith has added you as a friend on Facebook”; now they say “John Smith wants to be friends on Facebook”. I never quite agreed with the earlier version; it always made it seem like the request was being made against your will. This simple change now gives you the impression that you’re being asked for permission; that you’re more in control of the request. I approve of this, as it’s more accurate of the exchange that’s taking place. It goes to show you how mindful Facebook is of the power words and phrases carry, and I’m curious to see what else they change with their recent announcements on personalization across the web.