As someone who used to study interpersonal communication, I've recently been interested how the parameters and norms of Facebook affect our friendships. Not our Facebook friendships, but our real friendships. Because there is a difference, right? I am "friends" with a lot of people on Facebook -- people I would have long since forgotten but because we have a way to "connect," we are still "friends." Sometimes even better friends than we were before Facebook.
But, are we really friends? By the traditional definition of friendship? Do we enjoy doing activities together? Self-disclose with one another? Trust each other? No, not really. We're acquaintances who happen to know a lot about what is going on in each other's lives. But Facebook defines us as friends. Our Facebook friendship had a beginning -- the day the person friended me and I accepted their friendship -- and it may have an end. The end will be the day the person chooses to "unfriend" me. Or the day I unfriend them.
I've lost a few friends recently. Wait, let me re-state that. I've been "unfriended by" a few friends lately. When someone unfriends you on Facebook, you don't get any kind of notice from Facebook. They don't send you an email or flag that person's name somewhere on your account where you can see it. The person's updates just disappear from your feed and your total number of friends changes. I don't look at my number often so I don't notice right away when someone unfriends me.
One of the people who unfriended me recently was someone whom I didn't usually agree with politically and she posted several politically-charged status updates every month. The problem for me was that politics was never a discussion for her. She would not consider any opinion but hers which made her updates frustrating to read. I was tired of seeing her updates so I "blocked" them. That means I set up my account so that I wouldn't see her updates but I could still go to her page to check in on her and see what she was up to. I knew she was about to move across the country so I went to her page one day to see whether her house had sold and when she was planning to leave. When I got to her page, I realized immediately that she'd unfriended me.
Her unfriending came within a few days of me writing this post about our (inappropriate, in my opinion) reaction to Osama bin Laden's death. I know that she believes me to be extremely liberal (which is laughable) and my post probably fit right in with her opinion of my political position. I'm guessing that the post was like the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to her opinion of me.
When I wrote that post and linked it to my Facebook account, I thought it would probably be a catalyst for some friendly banter. I usually enjoy a little debate (as long as it doesn't turn into someone hounding me constantly -- in a huff, I actually unfriended someone for that once. Thankfully he gave me crap about it and I took him back the next day and am a better person for his Facebook friendship). To my surprise, everyone who posted comments on my Facebook page agreed with what I had said in the Osama bin Laden post. I was genuinely nervous putting the post up and was really surprised by the positive reaction.
So when I figured out that one of my friends had unfriended me as (what seemed like) a result of the post, I was sad and torn and really surprised that she couldn't just tell me she disagreed. Or block me like I had done with her status updates. I think that what made the unfriending hurt most was that the person was someone I was genuinely friends with. We had spent time together when our kids were younger, I had taken Christmas photos of her family, trudging through the snow in my flip flops to get the best photos and then spending hours and hours editing them. I had listened to her tell me about problems in her marriage and even watched her kids for her while she and her husband went for counseling. I even sewed curtains for her daughter's room. I invested a lot of time and hard work in our real friendship.
She wasn't my favorite friend and we certainly had our differences, but she was an actual friend, not just a Facebook friend. While our friendship had evolved naturally and could have been allowed to die out naturally when she moved away, instead it was ended abruptly using the contrived rules of relationships that we are bound to on Facebook.
With a real friendship, it is unlikely that there would ever be an abrupt beginning or an abrupt end. We ease into friendships and ease out of them. Okay, so there are the occasional blow-up, drag-out fights, but in general we grow apart. Our situations change, our schedules change, our interests change and we move on.
But not so on Facebook. The relationship ends. No discussion of why. No explanation. No grace.
I love that Facebook allows me to keep in touch with people I used to be close friends with. I love that I can get to know acquaintances better by peering into the Facebook window to their lives. But I haven't yet figured out how to deal with the new rules that Facebook is imposing on my friendships. Like early transportation and then the Pony Express and then phones and eventually email, Facebook's effect on friendships is uncharted territory and I am interested in seeing how it plays out.