i-d994973ed08dca18c7aa01339332b17c-terry touchgraph.jpg
There comes a time in every person’s online life when they have to make a decision: to add or not to add a “friend.” I put friend in quotations because that’s usually the problem. Is the person a friend, a real friend, or someone who wants to be a friend? Should I add them as a friend because it’s polite, or ignore them because I want to protect my personal information?

The one “network effect” that people don’t mention too often is the way that you get more and more friend requests with each social media site you join. Whether it’s MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pownce, Twitter or any of the other various social media sites sprouting up like weeds, you are always faced with the dilemma on who to add to your “friend” list.

I’ve rarely given this question much thought, and now I’m paying for that with a lot of irrelevant Facebook email alerts as well as MySpace spam messages. So I put the question to MediaShift readers: How do you choose among friend requests?

I wasn’t surprised that different people had different rules, but I was surprised at how picky people are. Quite a few people said that they only accept or invite friends who they’ve met in person. (I probably haven’t met 75% of my Facebook friends in person.)

“Just about everyone connected to me in the personal social networks is an actual friend that I know in person,” wrote TFO. “It has been interesting to be able to keep up with people from high school and college who are now scattered across the world.”

Anthony Moor, the deputy managing editor/interactive at the Dallas Morning News, also says he only accepts friend requests from people he’s met in the real world. But he is tempted to expand that a bit.

“I am considering whether there’s a value to following people whose whereabouts I care about but who I don’t know,” he wrote. “For instance a worker at a company that I cover on my beat (which, by the way I don’t do now, since I’m an editor); or a Hollywood star who’s fascinating.”

Some folks filter their friends to protect personal info from people they don’t know or work colleagues. For instance, the anonymous blogger Washwords only uses her real name on LinkedIn and Facebook, with a more limited network of people. Another reader, Sarah, who describes herself as a 30-year-old exec in Los Angeles, says she will only add friends on LinkedIn who she’s at least met for lunch.

“Personally, I haven’t found much practical use for [LinkedIn],” she said. “It just kind of sits there. I’ve messaged colleagues and posted requests, but they all tend to go unnoticed. In the business world of social networking, direct communication still seems to trump LinkedIn.”

Who to Follow on Twitter

With the micro-blogging service Twitter, you can follow what other people are doing right at the moment, and that often includes links to interesting stories or thoughts that go beyond the mundane. The problem is that when you start to follow hundreds — and even thousands of people — the stream starts to get difficult to filter the good from the bad.

There’s also the reciprocal aspect of Twitter, where you feel like it’s good etiquette to follow everyone that follows you. But… that ends up being overwhelming. Jordan Hirsch, who’s done some technical work on the MediaShift Idea Lab blog, said he tries to limit his Twitter followings:

I use Twitter as a way to follow and keep in touch with people I actually know, with a few rare exceptions. I have no interest in following “Internet celebrities” (like Robert Scoble or Dave Winer or whomever) — I’m happy to read their blog posts on topics I find interesting, but I don’t care what they had for breakfast.

Another reader, MonkeyGirl, also limits her follows on Twitter to people with interesting ideas vs. people with huge followings.

“I don’t follow people who look like they’re following the world (if I’m #2,689, are you really that interested in me?),” she said. “And I’ve discovered a lot of people [on Twitter] that are doing stuff professionally that I’m very excited to know about.”

Despite all the rules that everyone says they are following with social media friends, there are some people who still enjoy the spontaneous connection of adding or following someone they didn’t know before. Shane, who blogs at TechWhimsy, says he is discriminating about Facebook friends because of his personal info there, but is more open on other networks.

“Everything [besides Facebook], I pretty much just follow/accept whoever looks interesting,” he said. “Serendipity abounds here, which is half the fun of services like Twitter.”

True enough. But the balancing act is trying to be serendipitous and open to new ideas without signing up for a lot of noise, junk or spam. If anyone has other ideas on balancing their friends and followers, share them in the comments below.

Photo of Facebook “touchgraph” charting friends by Terry Chay via Flickr.