The Unfriending Wind of Unfriending

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is my weekly syndicated column, hence lack of links. BBC podcast is here.)

It’s an odd world where a word like “unfriending” becomes so common that we all know what it means. And we’re not thinking of unfriending in the old sense of hostile where Walter de la Mare would say

Sighed not the unfriending wind,

Chill with nocturnal dew,

‘Pause, pause, in thy haste,

O thou distraught! I too

Tryst with the Atlantic waste.

By Atlantic waste, here, he’s not referring to the stream of Facebook updates that come your way. But he might have been, because it transpires that Facebook–now one of the biggest nations on the planet, even if it is virtual–is full of unfriending people who will unfriend people for the most trivial of things. Like the cyber equivalent of talking too much.

To unfriend someone on Facebook, by the way, is to remove them from your contact list so they can no longer see what you’re up to. To ‘unfriend’ someone  is to banish them from your Facebook world: Where once they could see your photos, read your wall of musing and generally be part of your life, they will find only a blank space, accompanied by a message that says something like:

People who aren’t friends with Bob only see some of his profile information.

There is none of the fakery and social nuance of real life here: You once were in, and now you’re out. Unless of course you’re so embarrassed when the person complains that you pretend you didn’t unfriend them at all, but that Facebook deleted your account. Technology’s an easy whipping boy.

The New Oxford American English dictionary last year made ‘unfriend’ its word of the year. We like to think that our social networking world closely mirrors our offline world. But it doesn’t. There’s no real-world parallel for something like unfriending–excising someone from your real life isn’t as easy as clicking on a blue “remove from friends” button.

So why do people unfriend people? A survey by a student at University of Colorado Denver Business School has revealed that most people unfriend other people, not because they don’t like them, but because they give them bad information. After surveying more than 1,500 Facebookers, Christopher Sibona found the number-one reason for unfriending is frequent, unimportant posts.

In other words, you can be a good friend to someone on Facebook by giving them good, but not too much, information. Most people, Sibona found out, unfriend people, not because they’ve been nasty to them or because they stole their iPod, but because of the stream of consciousness they tend to throw onto Facebook. In short: I’ll be your friend if you don’t talk too much.

(I have a slight problem with this research: Sibona used Twitter, not Facebook, to reach his audience, which I suspect tilts his findings. Twitter is an information network, and while his questions are about Facebook the responses will inevitably be only from those Facebook users who are also Twitter users. While I’m sure many people use Twitter and Facebook differently, there’s an inevitable bias towards those people who use them similarly. The other problem I have is that Sibona does not appear to be a major user of Twitter–he follows only five people, nor of social networks in general: His LinkedIn page, for example, lists only 33 connections. For someone to research social networks to this degree, once needs to have extensive experience of them. I’m yet to be persuaded Sibona has these credentials.)

What’s interesting about all this is a point that I’ve been making for some time: all social networks use information as their currency. Joining Facebook is not enough: You need to be seen to be on Facebook, and, most importantly, to be seen to be useful on Facebook. This means, at the very least, that you provide entertainment for your friends.

If we believe this research it would seem to suggest that Facebook is not, actually, what it seems. We thought Facebook was a place where we were able to maintain, create and expand friendships. But instead it’s an information exchange. True, some of that information is about our lives, and so could be the stuff of letters we might in the past have stuffed in our end of year update cards to friends and family, but it’s also a place where we catch up on things.

Indeed, other research has shown that a lot of the time what we read online–in other words, where we get our news–is based on what people recommend we read. On places like Facebook.

So it makes absolute sense that some people on Facebook choose their friends the way we might in the past have chosen what newspapers to read: read the most informative; throw out the fluff.

This detachment, this pragmatism and ruthlessness can be seen in other surveys. A study by Nielsen found that half of 500 youngsters it surveyed didn’t personally know all of their Facebook friends. And kids, it turns out, don’t like being friends with their parents on Facebook: nearly a third of teens surveyed would prefer to unfriend their parents–particularly their mothers–if they could.

But it’s also a reflection of the fact that we don’t yet quite understand what the reciprocal obligations are of accepting someone’s friendship on Facebook. It’s virtually impossible to reject an invitation to be buddies on Facebook if you’ve ever met that person, however long ago and however fleeting the connection. But now you’re friends, what’s expected of you?

I offer a case in point.

One evening I searched for some schoolyard chums on Facebook and connected to them. No harm done; after all, they’re probably thousands of miles away so the commitment is negligible. But one wasn’t: He makes frequent trips to my neck of the woods, and I occasionally to his. We failed to meet up a couple of times, until I realised that we never would.

One weekend I found myself in his town and he was enthusiastic about meeting up, but then blew me off three times pleading work–while openly organizing a poker game with his buddies on Facebook.

I decided enough was enough. So I hit the unfriend button. But from it I learned an important lesson: Just because people are your friends on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re your friends. Even if, once, they used to be.

Being Facebook friends was about all my friend was ready for. I don’t blame him, though I wish there had been a halfway house between removing him from Facebook and letting things go on as they were.

In real life we would just have not gotten in touch again. I suppose if we’re youngsters we would stop sharing our Snickers bars or something. But on Facebook there’s a finality there. No going back. Unless of course he realises I’ve unfriended him and asks what happened, in which case I’ll blame Facebook.

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