In the early days, the social-networking site Facebook had the feel of an exclusive club. You needed a college e-mail address to join, so...
ORLANDO, Fla. — In the early days, the social-networking site Facebook had the feel of an exclusive club. You needed a college e-mail address to join, so for its young users, there wasn’t much chance of a parent or boss crashing the party.
Those days are long gone. The site has been open to everyone since 2006, and its fastest-growing demographic is people 25 and older. Members of the corporate world — particularly in the media and information industries — are flocking to the site, deeming it a great networking and communication tool.
As a result, young workers who have been on the site since college are increasingly confronted with a difficult question: What should I do if a boss or co-worker tries to add me as a “friend”?
If they accept the request, they could be giving up more personal information than they would ever share at the office. If they don’t accept, the boss might be offended. Besides the professional ramifications, being “poked” by your boss has the potential to ruin the site in the same way that hearing your dad say “bling” instantly made that word’s coolness evaporate.
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Perhaps sensing that users are struggling with friend requests from bosses and co-workers, Facebook — which has 69 million active users worldwide — rolled out more privacy controls last week that allow users to group their friends into lists and choose how much information the people on those lists can see.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace let users create profiles where they post photos, list their hobbies and interact with other users. Besides friends, a Facebook user can see only the profiles of other users in the same “network,” which could be based on a school, employer or location. MySpace profiles do not have the same network-based restrictions, but like Facebook, the site does offer privacy controls that let users choose even stricter settings.
Geno Mehalik, 24, a Central Florida hospital employee, said that although he doesn’t censor the political views or photos he puts on his Facebook profile, he is careful not to post information that could get him fired.
“I’m unabashedly myself on my Facebook,” Mehalik said. “I’m not an idealized, politically correct version of myself.”
He just doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his whole personality with his boss.
“If you get too buddy-buddy with your superiors, it can screw up the dynamics of the relationship,” Mehalik said. “There will always be a gap between who you are at work and who you are at home.”
Others, such as Virginia McComb, 26, have discovered that even if you really are friends with a co-worker, having him or her as a Facebook friend can be problematic. In November, McComb was working at a bank in South Carolina when she secretly married a man living in Orlando. She planned to tell co-workers, but only after another vacant position had been filled.
Because most of her Facebook friends knew about the wedding, she didn’t think twice about changing her “relationship status” from “engaged” to “married” on her online profile.
“Then one day I logged onto Facebook and it said, ‘So-and-so wants to be your friend,’ ” McComb said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, no, she works with me’ … so I changed my status back to engaged, and then I accepted the friend request.”
Because social-networking sites are so new, there isn’t universally agreed-upon etiquette. One thing many people agree on: It’s OK to accept a friend request from a subordinate, but it’s not OK to send one to a subordinate.
“That’s an intrusion into their lives,” said Fred Stutzman, 29, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who teaches a class on online social networks. “It’s like the boss inviting themselves to their subordinate’s party.”