Unfriending is a hostile act

I was clicking through some pictures on Facebook this morning, from the time we were in Ethiopia almost five years ago. I’ve got Ethiopia on the brain even more than usual because we’re revisiting all of those international adoption documents again — immigration, birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc. And I noticed that one of my friends, who commented on those long-ago photos, was no longer my “friend” on Facebook. I was puzzled. Sure, we don’t see each other that much any more, but I’m fond of her and want to keep up with her life. I assumed it was the same for her.

So I wrote her about it. And she told me that she had relocated, and shaved off 30 friends. It wasn’t personal.


I know much has been said and written about Facebook friends, and “friends.” I’ve written a little something myself. I have plenty of Facebook friends who are “friends” — people I rarely see and probably wouldn’t have much to say to in real life. And maybe my finger has hesitated over the “Unfriend” selection once or twice. But it doesn’t cost me anything to have these people as “friends.” So I keep them.

Unfriending is, after all, unfriendly. It says to that person: “Yeah, I accepted your friend request (or you accepted mine), but now, I want you OUT OF MY LIFE.” Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want. I’ve unfriended a few folks in my day — usually around election time, or when there’s a school shooting. I unfriended a bunch of former colleagues about a year ago, because I intended to set up a Facebook personal account and a Facebook work account. (I never did. Upon reflection, it seemed like entirely too much social media.)

But here’s the thing, those of you with itchy defriending fingers: If you’ve decided that someone isn’t a friend on Facebook, you’re sending the message that they’re not your friend in real life, either. And yes, that is personal. So defriend wisely, dear readers. The feelings you hurt might be those of a friend. A real one.

Facebook friends, defined

Do you like collecting friends on Facebook? You're a Pokemon friender.
Do you like collecting Facebook friends? You’re a Pokemon friender.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably had some baffling run-ins with Facebook friends: Out-of-the-blue defriendings that feel as hostile as a slap, friend requests from people you don’t know, rants from a guy you barely knew in high school about the sanctity of the Second Amendment.

So, how do you know if your Facebook “friends” are really friends? Here’s a useful guide, which is by no means comprehensive.

  • High-school reunion friends: You know it’s time for your high school reunion when you suddenly get a flood of 25 friend requests from people you nodded to at lunch or took shop with. Haven’t spoken to them since high school, and you haven’t spoken to them since you accepted their friend request.
  • Facebook takers: You know these people. They really irritate me. They post things like: “Wow! I just lost 1,000 pounds and I’m so happy!” and they get 65 likes and 200 comments. But the person never says, “Hey thanks!” or reciprocates, like actual friends do. They’ve never liked your kid’s baby picture. Never wished you well on your birthday. Prime candidate for defriending.
  • Real friends:  These are people who actually engage with you. Some comment on every post, and some only comment occasionally, but you know they actually, you know, LIKE you. I have some real friends that I see in real life, and some I don’t see at all. One of my favorite real friends I haven’t seen in over 20 years, but we’ve rekindled a tight friendship on Facebook. Fortunately, most of my Facebook friends (including the ones reading this post — thanks guys!) fall into this category.
  • Friends for political reasons:  They don’t pick fights, and they’re mostly silent, but defriending would be decidedly unfriendly.
  • Stalkers: Friends who never post and never comment, but when you see them in person, they can recite your posts from six months ago.
  • Friend of your significant other: This one comes courtesy of Steve. He says he received friend requests from friends of mine just so they could see pictures of my kid.
  • Oversharers: Friends whose posts read like journal entries. Cringe-worthy journal entries.
  • Pokemon friend: Gotta catch ’em all! Friend you added a long time ago, when you first joined Facebook, but you have no idea who they actually are. Prime candidate for hiding. See also: Promiscuous frienders.
  • Likers: They won’t commit to commenting, but they’ll like the hell out of your photos, your status updates and even your comments on their page. Likers are the Switzerland of Facebook.
  • Family: People who can be counted on to chime in and embarrass you with anecdotes about your teenage years. Or your prom pictures. See also: Friends for political reasons.