Recently I became a more active user of social media and have been reading lots of posts from people I don’t know. Some of those strangers seem like interesting people with whom I might become friends (I am happily married and not looking for extra romance). Is there a considerate, low-pressure, and noncommittal way to initiate a more personal interaction with someone whom I have not quite met online? How do you avoid coming across like a stalker?
D.M. / Cambridge
Let’s start with a nice steaming mug of “It depends,” because different social media platforms have different technological quirks and sociological norms. There are two main levels of relationship escalation in social media — the step from online strangers to online friends, and the step from online friends to in-person friends. It sounds as if you’re talking about the first step, which is the trickier one.
On Facebook, strangers come in two varieties: friends of a friend (FOAFs), and utter strangers (USs). I’ve converted many FOAFs into FOMs (friends of mine) over the years! I’ll send a friend request directly if I’ve had multiple enjoyable interactions with a FOAF on a friend’s wall. If I’ve liked their comments but haven’t responded directly much, or if there’s any reason to think that I might be misinterpreted, I’ll ask our mutual friend for an introduction.
Mutual friends can be proactive about these things if they’re inclined. Social-media matchmaking can be a real mitzvah, especially if you have friends in unusual professions or life circumstances who might appreciate knowing someone in the same boat. Ask each friend separately if he or she would like to be introduced to the other before starting a group message.
I used to send friend requests to FOAFs with a message saying that I would understand if they preferred to keep their friends list small. Then I learned that Facebook, like an overprotective butler, usually does not show you messages from people you aren’t already friends with. See what I mean about those technological quirks?
An Utter Stranger with whom you have no mutual friends is a slightly different matter. You can friend a FOAF because you find them entertaining or thought-provoking — just because you like them, in other words. That kind of free-floating positivity can come off as flirtatious or pushy or undiscriminating if there’s no mutual friend serving as cyber-chaperone. (This is kind of a Facebook thing — becoming a mutual follower on Tumblr or Twitter isn’t nearly so fraught.) This doesn’t mean you don’t ever attempt to befriend a US, only that you keep your conversation confined to the mutual interests that brought you together for a good long while — and twice the length of that if you and US are of the right age, gender, and orientation to be interested in each other. Also, be extra careful with new online friends about avoiding even the appearance of trying to market or proselytize or campaign.
Good luck! Social media can be a great way of meeting people and supplementing existing relationships when time and space fail to allow us acres of luxurious Quality Time with one another. The people who denigrate online friendships as unreal amuse me. They only really hate modernity. If most of them were to hear a tale of students and shopkeepers forming years-long friendships through postal correspondence with like-minded people they would never meet in person — and told that this happened all the time in the Victorian era — they’d find it unbearably high-minded and romantic.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.
DO YOU NEED ADVICE ON NO-DRAMA INTERACTIONS IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at email@example.com.