Facebook Etiquette: The Mutual Friend Dilemma

tl;dr: Control the urge to update your friend on how or what the ex is doing on social media. It doesn’t help.

I would conjecture to say that ending relationships is one of the hardest things we have to endure in life. If you search a top 10 list of hardest things to do in life, there are some broad areas that are “hard” like: growing up, going to school, losing a loved one, raising kids, getting up in the morning, etc., but ending relationships, like economics, cannot be viewed through a narrow lens. Depending on the tenure and the strength of the institutions of the relationship, it has an effect in all these broad areas of your life.

Markets are ecological, in that they are interrelated with each other, though they are distinct and seemingly independent. It is easy to see how rubber, as a commodity, has a wide-reaching effect. A shock in the rubber market will surely be felt by Nike, Goodyear, and Ticonderoga, among a few others that happen to use rubber in their product. So, when a major market experiences an exogenous shock, corrections will have to be made everywhere the ripple of the shock touches. The same adjustments need to be made after a relationship split.

However, because we are dealing with what F.A. Hayek calls structures of “essential complexity” we have to be careful to create institutions that foster an environment of quick corrections and adaptation to the shocks. One way to create these types of institutions is simply by the sharing of knowledge, which is what I hope to do with this note.

Before social media, particularly for a Joe Schmo like myself, ending a relationship was, arguably, a bit more intimate. You could cut the person out and start the correction process as quickly as possible. Studies show that not having any kind of interaction or information on how the other person is doing his or her own correcting is conducive to this process. As you can probably guess, this is not the case anymore. Now, 214 million of us in the United States and over 1.8 billion worldwide, have not just a place to post cute otter videos but an intimate extension of our lives online, along with its eternal digital footprint.

As of 2013, a Pew study showed that 24 percent of social media users search for information online about someone they dated in the past. The percentage goes up to 47 percent for twenty-somethings, and the Atlantic comically claims an implicit finding that the other 53 percent are lying. There are several articles that have discussed the Facebook etiquette of the break up, but only address the two parties involved. The “agreed” length of time to wait before posting pictures of your new love interest is about a month. Changing your status should take less than two weeks. Though in the UK’s Social-ology Study showing that 17 percent of those surveyed think it’s okay to Facebook-stalk the other person after ending the relationship, unfriending should happen within two to three week period after the confirmed split. Blah, etc.

What they fail to discuss at any respectable length, (though I have seen some discussion in some online forums), is what about all those mutual friends? In real life you discuss property rights over different things you’ve amassed as a couple and split it accordingly. “You take the desk chair, but I keep the desk.” “That lamp is mine, but you can take the light bulbs.” But, what about friends? There are friends that were created together and also old friends that were introduced by one of the relationship participants. Who “owns” which friends and how do you split them up on social media? Now, I’m not going to suggest that either relationship participant delete all the mutual friends that were created during the relationship, whether together or by introduction, but we can bring to light an issue that can arise from these shared online acquaintances.

No matter how hard either of the relationship participants block each other, mutual friends, especially ones that have pretty regular communication with you, have access to the ex’s social media life and subsequent correction process through pictures, posts, messaging, etc. This access to information can be easily communicated to either of the market participants despite the attempt to barricade themselves from their ex’s life on social media. Before social media, the search costs for this information were much higher for the friend, as they would have to either go and hangout with, or call, the ex to gather such information. These high transaction costs that would come with getting this information would often deter friends from doing this. Today, those transaction/search costs are much lower. All it takes is opening up Facebook and looking up the person in question.

As a public service announcement to the friends of friends that may (or may not) be going through one of the hardest shocks that life has to offer, don’t update the direct parties on how or what the other is doing. If you find yourself closer to one over the other, it might be best to unfriend the one you’re not as close with in order to keep yourself from even having the urge to pass along information. If you must keep both parties as friends, again, no updates are needed. This only hinders how quickly the internal market of our minds and emotions can correct themselves and move on. Additionally, the relationship participants can also help smooth out the shock by taking on this responsibility as well. However, if not discussed, or if there is no article to read on some established institutional practices, how will they know? With enough time, mutual friends end up not being much of a problem. But, time-preferences are different for everyone. Ultimately, it is not mandated rules that we are looking to establish. It is an awareness of the mutual friend dilemma that can perhaps foster the cultural and social institutions conducive to quick corrections in the “getting over your ex” market. That’s reasonable, yes?

Writing this may be somewhat childish, and perhaps just a vent where I attach economics to basically anything life throws my way. But, as modern cyborgs, these issues should be addressed in a relatively serious manner. As we adjust to the modern technology that interconnects us in magnificently beneficial ways, it is important to know about its equally grand iniquities as well. Plus, I’m just adhering to Hemingway’s recommendation where I “just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”