Paul Dyer was always able to hold off his boss’ invitations to party by employing that arms-length response: “We’ll have to do that sometime,” he’d say. But when his boss, in his 30s, invited Dyer, 24, to be friends on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, dodging wasn’t so easy. On the one hand, accepting a person’s request to be friends online grants them access to the kind of intimacy never meant for office consumption, such as recent photos of keggers and jibes from friends (“Still wearing that lampshade?”).
But declining a “friend” request from a colleague or a boss is a slight. So, Dyer accepted the invitation, then removed any inappropriate or incriminating photos of himself—“I’d rather speak vaguely about them,” he says—and accepted the boss’ invitation.
Dyer, it turns out, wasn’t the one who had to be embarrassed. His boss had photos of himself attempting to imbibe two drinks at once, ostensibly, Dyer ventures, to send the message: “I’m a crazy, young party guy.” The boss also wore a denim suit (“I’d never seen anything like it,” Dyer says) and posed in a photo flashing a hip hop backhand peace sign.
It was painful to watch. “I hurt for him,” says Dyer.
Like email and “buddy lists” before them, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace provide a definition of the word “friend” so expansive that it includes perfect strangers. Yet, strangers are the easy part. It can be a lot creepier to interact intimately with someone you sort of know than someone you don’t know at all.
“Nothing changes when a stranger invites you to be a friend,” says Nina Singh, a market-research consultant. But when one of her clients “friended” her, she saw a semi-erotic photo of him topless, posed and softly lit. “When you see your client’s pubic bone, something has changed.”
Victor Sanchez, 54, a senior development director, was once invited to join a site and was surprised to see a photograph of a younger colleague’s sea horse tattoo. “Sometimes it’s good to learn things about a colleague much later—or never at all,” he says.
These networking sites assist existing social relationships, letting people easily plan events, share pictures and keep up-to-date with far-flung friends. Once they penetrate the office, however, such sites can create awkward moments, particularly with colleagues who commit the social felony of attempted hipness. Dare I say, “Whatup, homey?”
When it comes to the boss, there is a real dilemma. You’re caught between a career-limiting rejection of virtual friendship or a career-limiting access to photos of yourself glassy-eyed at a party. “All these social relationships— apples and oranges—are getting crammed into one category of friends,” says Tom Boellstorff, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, who is writing a book on the virtual community, Second Life.
After one senior marketing coordinator at a law firm was invited by one of the lawyers to be his friend, she felt compelled to accept the invitation, even though she had no intention of socializing with him outside the office. He remarked once after an office meeting that he noticed she had a boyfriend, as listed on her online profile.
“It was strange,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why are you on Facebook?’”
Once “friended” by a colleague, people feel compelled to employ privacy features—which itself can be a snub—or to sanitize their online profiles—which is akin to hiding something under the bed. The same marketing coordinator removed college pictures of herself doing a keg stand—a handstand on top of a beer keg for a direct mouth-to-tap connection.
Prospective employers also seem to have no compunction conducting searches on job applicants before they call them in for interviews. “We’ll Google them and I know that we’ve done MySpace searches,” says attorney Caroline Kert of prospective hires.
She’s mostly looking for slams against a former employer or exposed proprietary information. She says she’d never hold against applicants something such as, say, a photo of them wearing a fur bikini. Good thing. Kert, a regular at the Burning Man Festival, has pictures of herself sporting just that on MySpace.
J.D. Lloyd, a law student working at a firm, isn’t taking any chances. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he removed a photo of himself in a Florida Marlins baseball jersey that was a mere “youth large”. “It was tight,” he says. “There may or may not have been midriff in some of those pictures.”
It used to be that employees were told to keep their personal lives out of work. Now, some bosses beg for it. Data analyst Valerie Jewett, 23, accepted a boss as a friend even though she likes to keep her personal and professional lives separate.
He’s a nice guy, she says, but his late-30s ungrooviness was evident when he wrote a message to her on the “wall” on her homepage. The message made her roll her eyes. “What a ko-wink-i-dink to find y’all on here! Yeehaw!!”
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