April 16, 2019

I Accepted 2,000 Friend Requests from Strangers on Facebook. Here’s What I learned from their Private Messages.


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Two weeks ago, I decided to sacrifice my Facebook profile for the greater good. Kind of.

After an inexplicable wave of friend requests flooded in, I accepted…all of them.

Why not craft an (informal) social experiment and learn a little bit more about how people are using social media, who holds privilege in the virtual world, cultural divergences in usage, and so much more!

I ended up accepting 2,000 friend requests in 48 hours.

If you’re confused about why anyone would ever do that, I wrote about all my motivations for doing so here.

I thought I would write one summary article about all of it, but there are so many elements, so I’m going to take it piece by piece.

I’ll start with the private messages. There were a lot of them.

In the days following my experimental friending free-for-all, I received 330 messages from new friends. Just scrolling through my inbox to collect these numbers was overwhelming—for my eyes, my fingers, and my soul. Please note that I am not using strict research methods here. The word experiment is intended to have a playful, exploratory connotation. In fact, just since collecting these numbers, they have increased by another 20-plus.

Of those 331 messages, 80 percent said essentially nothing: “Hello,” “Hi,” “Hey,” How are you” (sic. no question mark), [random sticker], [random assortment of consonants], [thumbs up], [waving emoji].

One hundred percent of these content-light messages came from men.

Of the remaining 20 percent (approximately 66 messages that I deemed to contain some kind of substance), 20 were unwelcome comments on my appearance, questions about my availability for sex, or baffling but still unwelcome collections of heart emojis and supposed compliments. Approximately 20 said something along the lines of, “Thank you for accepting my friend request” in various phrasing.

One informed me, “You are boy.” (I’m not, but I believe everyone is entitled to have and express their opinion.) Another wanted me to know how worthy I am. (I know.)

It’s not all bad though. Nine offered information to contribute to my experiment, which was greatly appreciated. Several shared links to music or business projects. A sizable chunk welcomed me to their circle of friends, which seemed odd but inoffensive. And the remaining handful were genuine efforts at an introduction or conversation.

The messages came in nine languages—Greek, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and of course English—and possibly more that I didn’t notice. I have not bothered to translate the languages I don’t know (less than 3 percent of the total).

Five people called. Again, all men. (Make that eight. Since beginning work on this article, three more have called.) No, I didn’t pick up. Calling unannounced is the same in my book as showing up at my house unannounced—not welcome.

Why does any of this matter?

Morbid curiosity is certainly a factor, but I wouldn’t spend so much time collecting this information and sharing it with you if I didn’t think there was a deeper point here.

My theory is as follows—and I welcome mindful disagreement and discussion. I believe there is a clear gender dynamic at play here that mirrors, quite exactly, the experiences that women face on a daily basis in the physical world.

When a woman walks down a city street just about anywhere, she is subject to a veritable onslaught of verbal, and sometimes physical, harassment. Workplaces, bars and clubs, public buses and trains, and even the home display these same unfortunate trends.

Wherever we turn, we navigate deeply embedded power imbalances.

Girls are taught from an early age that self-defense consists of avoiding the male gaze as much as possible. Women learn to “manage” male attention when in public spaces to avoid the very real risk of escalating a situation from annoying to dangerous. We have all played a part in normalizing these realities, blaming victims for their clothing or drinking choices, excusing male misbehavior as “boys being boys,” and accepting the status quo as inevitable.

Perhaps the same sense of entitlement—to a woman’s attention, time, and energy—underlies both the uninvited online calls and uninvited offline flirtations.

Perhaps the same lack of concern with how one’s words may cause a woman distress, psychological harm, or even trauma leads to the barrage of sexual comments and general harassment both on the street and in the cloud.

Without a doubt, it is no coincidence that in the scope of this experiment, hundreds of men sent repeated messages—“hello,” “hi,” “hi,” “hi,” “hellooooo,” “???”—and not one woman, in all my years of social media experience, has done the same.

Good or ill intentions aside, I believe that these kinds of behaviors imply a level of entitlement with much larger implications—an expectation that because a man wants something (a conversation, attention, sex), a woman should comply.

The individuals using social media in this way may indeed have the best of intentions, but these patterns indicate some serious problems in our social norms of engagement.

So, I’m curious, what have your experiences been with online interactions? How do you manage the ones that make you feel uncomfortable or disempowered (besides, of course, not accepting 2,000 friend requests from strangers). Please share your thoughts—or rebuttals—in the comments.

And please, talk about harassment and privilege—to your friends, to your loved ones, and even to the strangers who harass you.

This isn’t just about gender. It’s about race, age, sexuality, culture, and more. You’ve likely been on both sides of the equation. I know I have.

Fundamentally, this is about our right as human beings to decide where, how, and to whom we give our time and energy.

We don’t “owe” anyone.


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