I talk a lot about the positive aspects that social media brings to our relationships. It allows us to explore facets of our social network in ways that were hitherto unlikely. My generation feels less need for traditional high school reunions in part because there’s no need to re-union. We’re already in touch with our old friends-the question “so what have you been up to” has little bearing. Yes Boomers, here’s where you can lament the old ways but I know for a fact that you were the reason classmates.com is still around and that many of you are now on Facebook chatting with old classmates! As I’ve written elsewhere, Facebook more than any of the big 4 platforms mimics our offline social network the most and as such is where we maintain and are able to grow our offline relationships.
But there’s another side to all of this. Just as much as Facebook amplifies the positive of our offline relationships and can facilitate growth, it has also brought a way to completely end a relationship once and for all in a very clear and public way through unfriending. I’ve been racking my mind for a pre-Facebook offline equivalent. The closest I can come up with for adult relationships is removing someone from your address book or more recently deleting someone from your phone. But even that’s not really analogous because the other person doesn’t know that you did that and other people have no way of finding out unless you tell them. What it really reminds me of is a playground pronouncement of “You’re not my friend anymore”. But once again given the fluidity of relationships at that age even that’s not really a great example. A shared fruit roll-up tended to repair all wrongs.
The bottomline is that all of these actions were private. For the other person to know you’d have to have a very uncomfortable conversation making it clear that they were no longer a part of your life. There’s a reason that this tends to only occur within families (estrangement) and of course significant others (the breakup). The discomfort and awkwardness of that conversation with a friend is a high price to pay. It would take a massive occurrence for an adult to have that conversation. Consequently we tend to get colder in our relationships- perhaps a bit more formal. But the key is that that has always left an opportunity to renew friendship because ultimately no “you’re not my friend, get out of my life” had actually been said.
Facebook has changed this. Now with the simple click of a button we can signal that we no longer want someone in our lives. There’s no cost to us. Facebook doesn’t even send a notification so the only way someone might notice is if they come across your profile (or of course if they use an app to check which, let’s be honest, is a bit excessive). In fact the actual cost occurs if you did it in the heat of a moment because then you have to request to be added a friend once more which triggers the “why did you unfriend me?” awkward conversation.
I guess my message through this post is to think twice and even thrice (yes it’s fun to use that word!) before unfriending someone. Right now Facebook is full of heated and opinionated posts. It’s scary time around the world and everyone reacts in different ways. But there are several steps you can take to distance yourself from someone before taking that final act.
- Unfollow them. This means that their posts won’t appear on your feed. They have no way of knowing this- no harm no foul.
- Break your friends up into various lists that you use to filter post visibility. Are you tired of having a few of them get super opinionated and confrontational on your wall? Then limit their ability to see certain posts on your wall. It’s the same as the decision we all make not to discuss politics or religion with many of our friends and family.
- Add them to your restricted list. This is a bit of a bigger step but still not at the unfriending level. It makes your feed appear as if you don’t post very often. But, once again, they don’t get notified and you can always remove them. It’s similar to acting colder to someone offline. Yes it can be passive aggressive BUT the opportunity is still there to keep the friendship alive.
Check out Facebook’s tutorial on how to create and manage lists here.
Above all I urge you to stop and take a deep breath before deciding to unfriend anyone. Recognize that by doing that you are sending a very powerful signal that will require a major conversation to undo. Friendships matter. They are so very valuable and most of the time Facebook can bring out the best in them. So don’t let it bring out the worst.