05/26/2014 07:57 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2014

You've Got Friends! Really?

Drawing the line between friends and acquaintances is easier in the real world than the digital one. Online, we quickly accept friend requests, sometimes not even knowing the person who sent it.

If we take a look at our friend lists and circles, we may see many people we've never even met in person. Yet we allow them unlimited access to our lives through our posts, likes, comments, and other friends.

Some people actually take the time to put their friends into specific groups or circles such as "family" or "work" and selectively post to the correct group. But not always. Others just accept that we live in an "everybody knows everything" world and don't care. Their goal becomes to connect online with as many people as possible.

I once noticed a woman I didn't know well had befriended many of my friends from across the country. People she could not possibly have known. Thankfully, her only goal seemed to be having a large number of online friends. Others befriend us, just like in real life, to have access to our network for personal gain. The truth is, there is little we can do to stop this.

We should however, know who is a friend and who is not!

Those who grew up before the advent of social media understand better that an online friendship is not the same as a real-world friendship. However, in today's busy world, few of us give much thought to the people we are connected to online.

Not sure how to label your digital friends?

Look through your list of "friends" on the social media sites you frequent and answer the following:

  • How many have you actually met in person?
  • How many have you invited to your home?
  • How many have you known for over five years?
  • How many do you share a meal with on a regular basis?
  • How many do you trust with the details of your life?
  • And here's a telling question: how many would you actually recognize if you saw them on the street?

So are your "friends" really your friends or are they acquaintances? Or, are they complete strangers who have somehow become connected to you?

Acquaintances are people you know and are friendly toward but wouldn't consider personal friends. And then there is the general public -- people who may or may not have crossed your path, but either you want to friend them or they want to friend you. In this case, friend is simply too strong a word -- even in the digital world. Offline, we would never call someone we've never met a friend.

When you examine your friend list, also see if there are people on your list without photos or profiles. Or, does the "friend" use a famous name, but there is little on the home page? In addition, are there people who you are no longer friends with in real life on the list? Even folk who start off as friends may eventually show unfriendly behavior and fall by the wayside. Fortunately, unfriending is easier on social media.

People who are in the public eye, such as celebrities, politicians, business people, athletes, and writers, use their online posts to communicate with their constituents, customers, fans, and readers. They are aware that most of their "followers" or "readers" are not real-life friends. Some even use posting to craft an online media image for work or public relations purposes. This is not friendship, it is networking or marketing.

It is said the older we get the fewer the people who pass our friendship test. Real friends actually spend time together, or they have at some point in the past. I seldom communicate with my close friends via social media. If I want to know how they are doing I text them, call them, or better yet, arrange a face-to-face to actually be with them! These are the people I enjoy seeing and spending time with. (And, if I don't like you or enjoy your company you are not my friend, online or off.)

I have to admit, social media sites have put me back in touch with old friends that might have been hard to connect with otherwise. Some go as far back as elementary school. I hear there are people who use their old address books or school yearbooks to find people they once knew (or wanted to know). It is good to catch up with old friends, if you want to. Again though, you do not have to be friends with someone online just because you crossed paths years ago.

I'm guessing that for any person with over 100 friends on social media, at least 90 percent of the friends are really acquaintances, or the general public. They should be treated as such. Only a very few are close friends and you have no trouble identifying them. Even with family members, some are close, some not so much.

If you frequently post about the happenings in your life, and your friend list is becoming unwieldy, maybe it's time to pare it down or categorize. Truthfully, in today's world you might as well consider all of your posts public because you really have no idea who is viewing them.

Save your important messages, the ones you share with real friends, for phone (and even here there can be privacy issues, just ask Donald Sterling), or better yet face-to-face.

As our parents used to tell us, "It is better to have a few real friends than many fake ones."