Friday, September 16, 2011

The Facebook Effect

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.


Bri!!! said...

I've totally been unfriended which isn't surprising because I am so dang opinionated. It always shocks me though. I have a lot of friends who are liberal, and I could get offended, but I enjoy being exposed to others opinions. What facebook has done for me is softened my approach. I used to enjoy putting up controversial things because I love a good discussion, but through time, growing up, and probably hurting the feelings of others I feel like I've softened in many ways realizing relationships are more important than making a point. Don't get me wrong, I think making a point about things we are passionate about is great, but I've realized I was too harsh. Facebook has also helped me change some of my views through discussions which I think is really cool.

It's weird that being unfriended can be hurtful. I have been hurt by it, and it still bugs me because the girl who unfriended me was a big part of my life for a short period of time too. I too am interested to see how it all plays out.

Bri!!! said...

Oh, and I read some of the comments on your other post (which I loved) and YES you should read Unbroken. It's absolutely incredible!

I think it's hilarious your friend thinks you are so liberal. I'm extremely conservative, and I feel like I agree with much of what you share.

Hillary said...

I also think it's funny that she thinks I'm liberal. Yep, I think we see eye to eye on a lot and I wouldn't consider you liberal, either. I will be sure to check out Unbroken! I noticed that this morning when I was re-posting that link and reminded myself I needed to get on that!

Heather Van Uxem-Lewis said...

Over the years I have found a greater level of miscommunication with emails, chats and texting. Social networks take this already shaky medium of communication and put a very distanced and public twist on conversation. There is a strange passive aggressive nature to posting something politically and/or emotionally charged and then not engaging with those who choose to respond. Often, things go unsaid, which may be one of the most unhealthy aspects of social networks. The thoughts and ideas stew without a release of conversation and thoughtful discussion. There are myriad examples of how and when this happens. Truly a Facebook effect.

The Loerzels said...

Yup, strange how you can find out if you really actually are friends (or not) on facebook.

Maria Boice said...

Very eloquently said, Hillary. There have been a few times I've almost closed up shop on FB. I don't like the drama, but I love to keep in touch with friends.

Your Mom reminds me of mine. I'll have to adopt "Let's have a little decorum" saying. Classic. My Mom used to say, "Don't hate someone. You can dislike them immensely, but don't hate them."