In Second Life's early years, making Friends was easy: you just had to select Offer Friendship from your menu. Of course, it's still that simple, technically speaking. Socially, it seemed about that effortless back then too, because for the most part, friendships were made shortly after meeting someone-- or even as a means of meeting someone. And from the receiver's point of view, it seemed rude to reject a Friendship offer, even if you hardly knew the person. (I think fellow Residents from 2003 and 2004 can back me up here.)
In recent months, however, I've observed a palpable shift. In my experience, Offers are now much slower to come, and when they do, they're usually preceded by an explicit "May I friend you?" request first. People have even told me about feeling trepidation while making an Offer, afraid they'd be rejected. Second Life Friendship, in other words, has become more like the material version-- something earned only after you've gotten to know each other.
One possible explanation is the size of the world, with hundreds of thousands of monthly active users and millions of first-time trial accounts. Residents are now likely to be less gregarious, with Second Life no longer the size of a small town, but a mid-sized city. But that answer doesn't satisfy me. The world was already that large in 2006, and unless I missed it, this extra layer of social distance didn't develop until much more recently.
If you accept that premise, what's a better explanation? A rash of Friendship-offering Spambots, for example? Or evidence that the world has become truly balkanized, the many different subcultures more insular, and prone to hold outsiders at arm's length? Or something altogether?
No criticism intended of the man on fire above, by the way-- the image of him rejecting my friendship entreaty is purely for illustrative purposes. In any case, I'm the one violating the new ethos' unwritten social code, not he.