The Null Device

Pleased to unmeet you

The Observer has an article about the phenomenon of “friend clutter” on social network services; in short: while it's easy to “friend” people, removing someone from one's circle of acquaintance is inherently a hostile act; there is no cultural provision for severing notional ties with people one has no actual ties with on a no-fault basis. (At least, this is the case in England, where making a scene is something impetuous foreigners do, and Just Not Done; it'd be interesting to see whether people are quicker to sever online acquaintances in more brusque locales—say, Berlin, Moscow or Tel Aviv) And hence, we end up with friend lists full of strangers:
Even "unfriending" someone on Facebook, the closest equivalent to Bierce's proposal, feels like delivering a slap in the face (and not even a well-timed slap, since you can't be sure when they'll find out). Facebook itself hates unfriending, for commercial reasons, and thus makes it easy to hide updates from tiresome contacts without their knowing – a deeply unsatisfactory arrangement that leaves you at constant risk of meeting someone face-to-face who assumes you must already know they've got engaged, or had another baby, or been dumped, or fired, or widowed.
If that sounds a heartless way to think about other people, consider the parallels. Physical clutter, as a widespread problem, is only as old as modern consumerism: before the availability of cheap gadgets, clothes and self-assembly furniture, it wasn't an option for most people to accumulate basements full of unwanted exercise bikes, games consoles or broken Ikea bookshelves. We think we want this stuff, but, once it becomes clutter, it exerts a subtle psychological tug. It weighs us down. The notion of purging it begins to strike as us appealing, and dumping all the crap into bin bags feels like a liberation. "Friend clutter", likewise, accumulates because it's effortless to accumulate it: before the internet, the only bonds you'd retain were the ones you actively cultivated, by travel or letter-writing or phone calls, or those with the handful of people you saw every day. Friend clutter exerts a similar psychological pull. The difference, as Bierce understood, comes with the decluttering part: exercise bikes and PlayStations don't get offended when you get rid of them. People do. So we let the clutter accumulate.
And while the psychological impact of severing a friendship (even one that only exists as a row in a database, in which neither party remembers who the other actually is) can be mildly traumatic (there have been neurological studies that showed that social/romantic rejection stimulates the same parts of the brain as physical pain; I wouldn't be surprised if awareness of a severed connection worked similarly), another factor is the business models of social software services, such as Facebook, whose balance sheet depends on as many people as possible seeing which brands other people they “know” in some sense or other liked, hence another layer of polite hypocrisy is invented: the hidden, passive “friendship”, in which one doesn't have to see anything about the life of one's notional acquaintance, but can avoid the minor agony of forever writing them out of one's life. (And unfriending, it goes without saying, is forever, or at least without a damned good apology.)
The more profound truth behind friend clutter may be that, as a general rule, we don't handle endings well. "Our culture seems to applaud the spirit, promise and gumption of beginnings," writes the sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her absorbing new book, Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, whereas "our exits are often ignored or invisible". We celebrate the new – marriages, homes, work projects – but "there is little appreciation or applause when we decide (or it is decided for us) that it's time to move on". We need "a language for leave-taking", Lawrence-Lightfoot argues, and not just for funerals. A terminated friendship, after all, needn't necessarily signal a horrifying defeat, to be expunged from memory. One might just as easily think of it as "completed".
Mullany recommends a friend-decluttering exercise that she admits sounds "weird", but that she predicts will become more and more widely accepted. She advises making a public proclamation on Facebook in which you specify the criteria by which you'll henceforth be defining people as "friends". Maybe you'll resolve only to remain Facebook friends with people you've met at least once in real life, or maybe you'll use a stricter standard, such as whether you'd invite that person to your wedding. Explain, in the same proclamation, that the consequent defriending shouldn't be taken personally, and that you're doing it to a number of people at once. Then start clearing out the clutter.
If Zuckerberg's insistence that everyone should be friends with everyone prompts us, out of necessity, to winnow our lists to a smaller group of people we truly cherish, he'll have done something admirable, even if it's the opposite of what he intended.
Indeed; though whether it prompts people to circle the wagons and insist on only remaining attached to people they have met recently or would go for a drink with is another question. Part of the utility of services like Facebook and whatever succeeds it would be to keep in low-level ambient contact with people whom one is not friends with in the classic sense of friendship: old school buddies, ex-coworkers, people one met a few times some years ago, and so on. Of course, the amount of attention these people might have for one is probably somewhat limited, so updates would be limited to the major things: changes of location, marital status, sex, and that sort of thing. Which strikes me as quite distinct from the interactions one has with one's active online friends: the stream of updates about one's life peppered with amusing links, usually involving cats.

There are 5 comments on "Pleased to unmeet you":

Posted by: Greg Mon Sep 17 14:32:27 2012

I think there are several distinct, interesting questions in this debate.

1. Who should be in one's "friends list" - i.e. with whom should one share content? 2. Would it be better to use a term other than "friends" for this list? 3. Regarding the friending policies of individual users, is it true that the users' and Facebook's interests do not coincide? 4. If so, what would Facebook ideally like us to do regarding friending?

Posted by: Greg Mon Sep 17 14:34:19 2012

I agree that the sets "offline friends" and "people I want to share content with on Facebook" are not necessarily equivalent. SNS started out as attempts to model in a database people's actual social networks (e.g. Six Degrees and maybe Friendster) but FB is clearly more tthan that, and the experience can be more like Usenet, with users coalescing around topics rather than offline friendship groups. Clearly many people like this, and FB tries to accomodate it. Also most of us have friends IRL who are not on FB. So our FB "friends list" is porbably not for anyone a model of their actual friends.

Therefore I think that FB should call this list someothing other than "friends list". Other social services use different terms, so it can't be that hard. I think it's the word "friend" that introduces the social angst into linking and makes it hard to delete links. "Is this person really my friend? What would they think if I defriended them?"

Posted by: Greg Mon Sep 17 14:35:33 2012

The fact that FB seems to encourage us to have more "friends" than we really have may lead people to think that FB wants us to have lots of links (3). This could induce conspiracy theories, or at least the belief that when it comes to "friends lists" the company and its users' interests to do not coincide.

But if FB wanted us to share content with random people we didn't know, it could simply create those links in its social graph, or even ignore the graph and deliver the content. So I'm not convinced that we are being pushed by FB into friending randoms, or people who we don't really want to friend. For FB to even bother modelling the social graph, there must be an advantage *to Facebook* in knowing who is actually friends with whom, and/or in having users mainly share content with people they actually know.

So my feeling is that FB would actually like us to accurately model our social graph and that their terminology more than software makes it difficult to do so.

Posted by: earthenware Tue Sep 18 06:50:09 2012

"I think it's the word "friend" that introduces the social angst into linking and makes it hard to delete links. "Is this person really my friend? What would they think if I de-friend them?"

GREG is spot on with this...the SYNTAX used makes it confusing for those socially isolated to remove people from the list.

from a marketing point of view, it is better if people are actually friends, since if a product/service gets "word of mouth" the impact is stronger from closer acquaintances. They monitor your interests and target ads so they also have greater likelihood of success. The reason facebook succeeded is because it extracts these demographic profiles from users while the user thinks they are in a process of "connecting" with other people, other people who, as this article correctly states...have shut down your feed for months as there is simply not enough hours in a day to read through hundreds of newsfeeds.

Posted by: earthenware Tue Sep 18 06:51:51 2012

The whole information overload and cluttered layout are on purpose also, the more information you are presented with, the more likely you'll see something you want to click on...and hence the longer you stay...and the longer you stay the more likely you may see an advert. :)

Want to say something? Do so here.

Post pseudonymously

Display name:
To prove that you are not a bot, please enter the text in the image into the field below it.

Your Comment:

Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.

Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.