Is friendship commutative?

Recently I joined Facebook in order to coordinate a project with the high school kids at church. Facebook really isn’t designed for this sort of thing; Yahoo Groups might be more appropriate, except that communicating with teenagers is hard. They all have email, but most of them never check it. Some of them check Facebook several times a day. (Others refuse to sign up.)

Ever since then, I’ve been getting “friend” requests. For the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many of these are people I know quite well. But I occasionally get one from someone I barely remember– but who might have good cause to remember me.

I went through the same thing with Friendster when it was popular. I’m a minor celebrity at Opus (and only at Opus), so after I got home from Opus one year, I got 50 friend requests. Mind you, I’m sure I had meaningful conversations with most of those people, but my brain is terrible with names and faces.

In everyday life, we assume that friendship is commutative. That is, if I am your friend then you must be mine. That’s absolutely not the case with social networks, where friendship is linked to one’s access another person’s information. A celebrity who wants people to know what he or she is doing needs to approve everyone as a friend.

Twitter has a more natural model. Signing up to follow one person’s tweets doesn’t imply that that person needs to follow yours. As does Slashdot, which lets you declare “fans” and “foes.”

Social networking sites need to forget friends and just have fans. The interface on Facebook wouldn’t need to change much. (Although the underlying data model would need to be significantly revamped.) When you sign up as someone’s fan, that person could be given the chance to deny you access. (In practice, that probably wouldn’t stop a committed stalker.) You’d also be given a chance to be that person’s fan.

In real life, friendship isn’t as commutative as people pretend it is. How close one really feels to another is often a guarded secret or an unspoken assumption. Doctors regularly feign familiarity with their regular patients, whom they see far too infrequently to remember. As do ministers and a host of other people in a variety of professions.

How to handle a debt collector

Sylvia got class photos at school a while ago. The photo company, rather than asking up front which pictures people wanted, printed a kitchen sink portfolio and sent it home with the kids. The parents were instructed to return any unwanted photos along with payment for the rest.

Jordan dutifully took a few photos out and returned the rest with her credit card information. In theory, that should have been the end of it. (Her credit card was just fine.)

The other night, a debt collector called. They claimed to own the debt. They didn’t know much about it, not even Jordan’s address. So they said they could not send her a bill.

And they wanted her to pay not only the amount owed (which seemed excessive) plus an $8 handling fee for paying over the phone. Jordan asked for an address. The caller provided one with an incomplete zip code, then hunted around for a different address.

Neither Jordan nor I knew how to handle a call from a debt collector. For the record, the law you need to know about is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In short, if you get a call from someone claiming to be a debt collector, you should:

  1. Not reveal too much information about yourself or any potential debt. In particular, don’t say anything that would confirm or deny any debts. Keep in mind, the caller could be anyone. Plus, they will use any information against you. If it’s a scammer or identity thief, any random information makes it easier to impersonate you.
  2. Request that all communications be in writing. Don’t tell them your address (see above). If you really owe them money, they should have or be willing to find your address.
  3. Tell them to send you a description of the debt in writing.
  4. If they balk, you may politely remind them that failure to comply results in a $1000 fine.
  5. And, of course, do not accept any “convenience charge.”
  6. When you get the statement, which they are required to send within five days no matter what, it shoud say that you have 30 days to pay or contest it. If you don’t respond in time, that is not evidence of debt, but it will complicate matters if you really do owe them.

The relevant section here is on page 5 of the FDCPA.