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10 of Hannah Sternberg’s Greatest Hits

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Hannah Sternberg

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April 27, 2014 - 9:50 am
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9. July 17, 2013: Bad Advice: Slaying Facebook Trolls

How to silence people who refuse to be defriended.

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Dear Bad Advice,

Recently I cleared out my Facebook friends list. It was getting out of control and I wasn’t seeing updates from people I cared about, because my newsfeed was so clogged up with people I haven’t seen in years and don’t really care about. The weird thing is, even though Facebook doesn’t notify you when you’ve been deleted by someone (at least, as far as I’m aware) a surprising number of the people I’d removed from my friends list noticed, and sent me angry or surprised messages asking me why I’d removed them! I barely interact with these people on FB or away from it, and I have no idea how they managed to notice so quickly, or why they seem to care so much. Any advice on how to respond to them?

- Tired of Facebook Fiends

This is going to sound like bad advice, but sometimes you just have to give someone the cold shoulder.

I don’t know about you, but I use Facebook to maintain a connection with people on the periphery of my life — people that I’d still like to be able to get in touch with, but with whom I don’t have a strong, deep, ongoing friendship with. Sure, I sometimes post on a good friend’s wall and often like my mom’s posts, but Facebook isn’t my primary means of staying in touch with them or the other people who are really important to me. I write to, or call, or spend time with, or even send letters in the mail to the people who are really important to me. In general, I keep a big list of friends on Facebook just so I can reach out to any one of them when the mood strikes me — not because I regularly want to keep up with any of them. What I’m getting at, is that for me to defriend someone, they have to be a really marginal figure in my life, because Facebook “friendship” doesn’t hold a lot of value for me in the first place.

So I’m going to assume that you, too, defriended people who had grown so far apart from you that it seemed silly to maintain even that much of a meaningless and effortless connection to them. Good for you. Not everyone you encounter in your life is going to be someone you want to maintain a connection with for the rest of your life, and acknowledging that also frees you up to dedicate more time and effort to the real and lasting relationships in your life — the ones that matter to you offline, too. Facebook friendship isn’t actually friendship, or a relationship of any kind — it’s a bookmark for a person in your life, reminding you, “Oh, if I go here, I can reconnect with Xena again. Cool. If I ever want to rekindle our friendship, I know where to find her.” Likewise, terminating a Facebook friendship (especially with someone you barely know or speak to) isn’t terminating a relationship, it’s just acknowledging what is probably already reality: that you barely know this person anymore, and don’t see yourself growing close to them again in the near future.

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That sounds like it could be pretty painful for someone to find out from a friend. But if the above situation is really the case, then the other person should have noticed you weren’t really friends anymore long before you terminated the Facebook connection. It’s not a personal attack (it doesn’t sound like you’re defriending people in anger or retribution, like an angsty teenager), though it might carry some of the bittersweetness of making you (and your former FB friend) realize how quickly time flies and how much people change. That’s natural. What’s not healthy is for that person to then throw a tantrum about it.

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What your disgrunted former FB friends don’t understand are what I think of as the fundamental rules for any rational, mature adult using FB to keep in touch with people from their past and present:

1) Facebook “friendship” does not equal real friendship. Real friendship requires time, effort, and personal, private communication. Facebook “friendship” is just a placeholder for that.

2) The lack of a Facebook “friendship” does not indicate the lack of real friendship. One of my very dear friends of nearly ten years doesn’t have a Facebook account, but we’ve remained friends long after we were no longer geographically close. The same can hold true even if both people have FB accounts. My boyfriend and I dated for nearly a year before we became Facebook friends. It wasn’t because we didn’t care for each other. It was just because neither of us puts a lot of stock in Facebook “friendship.”

3) The end of a Facebook “friendship” doesn’t necessarily signal the end of a real friendship. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person hates you, dislikes you, or never wants to be your friend again in the future. The only thing defriending someone on Facebook means, at face value, is that the other person doesn’t feel like seeing your Facebook updates in their newsfeed anymore, and doesn’t see you two reconnecting any time soon enough to be worth holding on to that “bookmark.”

So, if someone that you barely know or speak to anymore gets upset that you defriended her on Facebook, just hold the course you’ve already set: don’t respond to her. When you break up a long-term relationship or friendship in real life, you owe someone an explanation. But when you quietly disappear from the newsfeed of someone you barely know and haven’t personally spoken with in ages, you don’t owe them any explanation…it’s just the natural conclusion of a pattern that must have been obvious to them for a long time. If ghosting them sounds too mean, you can respond to the complainers with something rote like “Hey there! Nothing personal — I was just clearing out my seriously too-long friends list. We hadn’t spoken in ages, but you still have my email address if you ever want to get back in touch!” That’s a good response because it calls the other person’s bluff — if she sincerely wishes to rekindle the connection between you, it’s up to her now to do the work of starting it. My bet is most people wouldn’t bother sending you an email after that. There are lots of people who will get affronted over losing you as a Facebook friend because of how much they care about Facebook, not how much they care about you.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think you owe those people any response at all. It just feeds the impression that Facebook friendships are somehow much more meaningful than they are. In my eyes, Facebook is useful, but not meaningful. It’s useful in keeping tabs on people with little effort; useful in letting people share and promote their work (ps please “like’ this column); useful in letting families and circles of friends share photos, events, and other things that are important to them. But it’s not Facebook that makes a relationship meaningful. It’s what both parties put into it, on and offline. Don’t succumb to a guilt trip over ending an entirely empty Facebook “friendship.” If some of your former FB friends are juvenile enough to get affronted (and confrontational) about it, I can begin to see why you’re no longer friends.

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