The Plight of the Unfriended

I have a random acquaintance who, apparently having decided that the “random” part of the equation now significantly outweighs the “acquaintance” part, revoked our claim to facebook friendship.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, and I have no problem with it in principle. Friendship on facebook, as in real life, is a relationship based on feelings — an arrangement that depends on mutual esteem or fellow feeling. Of course the surreal nature of facebook allows one to accumulate “friends” without actually *being* friends, and this is generally harmless. But when the feeling of friendship is completely absent, its only visible remnant a fake facebook connection lodged somewhere in the digital void, then yeah, sure, unfriending makes sense.

But here’s the rub: every time I log on to facebook, the little “friend suggestions” tab features this person’s face along with the innocent declaration that “You and _____ went to Wesleyan.” Yes, facebook. I know this. What are you trying to imply? Frankly, I find your “suggestion” a little tasteless.

When you’re not friends with someone anymore, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact. It’s awkward. But I think there’s additional weirdness here that comes from another source: the obvious disconnect between real life and facebook. In real life, there’s (usually) no decisive, permanent moment of “un”friendship — you just lose touch, you “stop speaking” as it were. On facebook, however, you are privy to a permanent, written notice, and in this case a near constant reminder, of mutual apathy. This taps into the coolest aspect of online communication from an English major’s perspective, which is that digital “speech” strikes a middle ground between the verbal and the written. And when the permanence of online stuff runs up against social convention of casual verbal communication, it produces dissonance. This is particularly true because facebook has become key to the way I interact with others — it’s part of how I socialize.

Of course I’m taking this insight straight out of the ethnographic work of the incomparable Jenny Ryan, so I’ll just go ahead and quote a paragraph from her amazing MA thesis:

“While many of my informants condemned social networking sites for contributing to a perceived decline in face-to-face interaction, by and large these sites serve simply as extensions of preexisting communication practices. The ubiquity of social Internet use among younger generations has given rise to the use of online social networks for expressing friendship bonds and group affiliations, lending an explicit affirmation of belonging in the world. In one of my interviews, a student related to me that before she came to college, her older sister informed her that “you don’t exist if you’re not on Facebook.” It is precisely this mentality that may lead some to depend on these visual articulations of their social worlds, especially in times of loneliness and depression. Online social networks enable the virtual expression of longstanding offline obsessions with effectively performing one’s identity, demonstrating one’s popularity,and acquiring information about romantic interests.”

The performance of identity is a key theme of current anthropology and cultural/ethnic studies — and Jenny points out that it applies perfectly to online social networking. People are very concerned with how they present themselves, crafting a digital persona or self to perform in the online arena, just as they do in everyday life. When being “friends” with someone no longer really fits with the self you see yourself as, then you shelve the friendship. It’s perfectly natural. I just wish facebook wasn’t in my face about it all the time!

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3 Responses to “The Plight of the Unfriended”

  1. Desiree Says:

    Another one of the things I did before leaving Missouri was delete every Facebook friend I had who lost meaning in my life. It didn’t matter if I saw them in the past week or in over 5 years. I remember it carrying a lot more weight than I thought it would…anyhow, sounds like you were whopper sacrificed: http://www.whoppersacrifice.com/

  2. An Old Friend Says:

    While we’ve lost touch and been “defriended” for almost a handful of years now, I’ve grown to look at our past friendship with a certain positivity and youthful affinity and still check on your profile and blog once in a blue moon to see how you’re doing. It genuinely makes me happy when I see you are well.

  3. tripinchina Says:

    Old Friend —
    Thank you for your kind words. I wanted to let you know (after a small amount of digital detective work revealed your identity) that I feel the same way. I wish you well! 🙂
    –T

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