I have to remember to give Sarah Houghton-Jan a big pat on the back next time I see her for her post on social networking software. In it she risks ostracism de-friending ;) to articulate some of her gripes about the dilution of social networks. One gripe in particular is one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

And then there are the new friend requests. A lot of these friend requests are from people I don’t know at all…but I have a sense of guilt that I would offend or upset someone if I didn’t say “Yes, I’m your friend now.” … As a result, my list of “friends” has become quite meaningless. There are people on the lists who really are my friends, others who I’ve perhaps shared one e-mail with, and others who I wouldn’t know from a hole in the ground—and they all have equal weight as my “friends.”

I get friend requests in different networks (Facebook, LinkedIN, Flickr, Twiter and Ning) all the time. And 80% of those who add me I do not know. I used to add everyone who added me, but now I don’t and I feel bad about it. If I added everyone to my Flickr contacts, my contact photostream would include lots of pictures from people I don’t know and they would make it hard to find the pictures from the people I do know. If I added everyone to Twitter, I wouldn’t be able to use the site to keep up with my friends. But now I have 56 friends and 150 followers in Twitter and I wonder if I’m mortally offending the people I don’t add. It’s fine if they want to follow my Tweets or my Flickr photos, but I hope they won’t be hurt if I choose not to follow them. I wonder if I offend people when I don’t add them, but if I did, the tools would no longer serve their purposes.

I’m curious about how other people deal with this. Do you add everyone who adds you regardless of whether or not you know them? Do you add people you don’t know? If someone doesn’t add you, does it hurt your feelings? Do you think the term “friend” in these social networks has meaning if you add people you don’t know at all? I don’t know that people add certain people because they’re a “status symbol” to have on your list, as Sarah suggested. I assume it’s because they are interested in the person or think highly of them. It’s like subscribing to someone’s blog. Only it really does complicate the whole vetting process if you really don’t know the people who you’re affirming as your friend.

I really do think that these tools will stop being meaningful if people friend folks regardless of whether they know them, respect them (in the case of LinkedIN), or find them interesting (in the case of del.icio.us). But I, too, feel the draw to add everyone who adds me because no one wants to hurt someone else’s feelings. Oh what a tangled Web!