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'Friend' inflation: Facebook popularity categories may boost egos but devalue the term

Ask just about any college student and you'll hear this confession: They have Facebook friends they'd rather not see in real life.

How did we arrive at this strange state of non-friend friends? Here's how.

A student's popularity has never been a mystery on campus. You see that everyone greets the campus tour guide while the wallflower silently slips by. You know the starting quarterback has a larger social circle than the treasurer of the biology club.

But the social networking site Facebook provided a popularity index, quantifying your social life by listing the number of your friends. That cold black digit seemed to bear inestimable import, reflecting your collegiate status, the value of your tuition and the worth of your existence.

Students set out to drive up their counts. Every stroll across campus became an opportunity to befriend someone. Intramural sports, art exhibits, concerts, parties. You didn't merely attend; you pressed the flesh. The length and quality of the exchange didn't matter, just that it happened.

Then on Sunday, campus-wide Facebook Update Day, you had a dozen people to friend (yes, it's a verb now).

Some Facebook members achieved great success, tallying up formidable friend counts of 500 or 600. As a result, the meaning of a Facebook friend became diluted. The warm-fuzzy affirmation the word used to convey dried up into something crusty and stale. Everyone knew that liking a person was only one reason to friend them. Wanting to gain access to their profile was another.

For a long time, the problem persisted, and everyone was too busy watching "The Colbert Report" to fix it.

Top Friend list both solves and creates problems
And then, miracle of miracles, a solution emerged: The Top Friend application. This allows you to create a sub-set of your real friends, aka the people you actually hang out with, and bestow them with the ego-boosting distinction Top Friend.

It came with a powerful incentive: a popularity ranking. Facebook counts the number of Top Friend lists you've been added to and calculates your popularity based on this number. You start as a "Wallflower," then work your way up to "People Like Me," "People Invite Me to Parties," "Social Butterfly," "I'm Kind of a Big Deal," and the big kahuna, "I Have An Entourage."

Eileen Bock, a 34-year-old grad student from Coon Rapids, is currently sitting at "People Like Me," having been promoted to Top Friend by four people. Being promoted isn't a big deal, though, she said. "When I get an invite, I just figure someone is adding top friends because it's new to them. I don't feel any more special."

When Bock sees people with more than 15 Top Friends — and some have as many as 200 — she rolls her eyes. "That's like calling everyone in real life your best friend. The title has no meaning if you use it on everyone."

You see where this is heading, right? Next up: Super Top Friends.

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Comments (2)

Insightful column!

It seems to be the same with many social networking sites. e.g. Twitter.

Want to be my friend?