Friendship In The Age Of Unfriending
By Anne Thériault
It almost always happens out of the blue.
I’ll go to a friend’s profile to share something or send them a message or look for an article they posted once, and right away I’ll notice that something about their page looks off. Then, as I frantically scan the unusually limited information available there, I’ll feel that familiar lurch in my stomach as I realize what’s wrong: They’ve unfriended me (or unfollowed me, or blocked me).
The shock of the realization is usually followed by a sense of denial: It must have been a mistake; they must have hit the unfriend button by accident; a quick message will set this all right. But before I can even think of what I’m going to say, I’m struck by the thought that it might not have been a mistake after all. And then I go down the dark and endless rabbit hole of everything I’ve ever done or said or posted that might have somehow made my friend hate me.
I have a fairly large social media presence, so I’ve had my fair share of unfollowings and unfriendings. I wish I could tell you that the sting of unfriending lessens the more I experience it — but it doesn’t. Each time is just as sharp and shame-inducing as the last.
We often talk about how social media has changed the way we make friends, but we rarely discuss how it has changed how we un-make friends. A decade ago, the end of a friendship was a different beast entirely. Most died a quiet death, slowly petering out due to lack of time or interest or care from either party; others were terminated with extreme prejudice, their endings punctuated by explosive words and feelings that seemed too damaged to ever be repaired. But even the worst pre-internet friend breakup lacked the brutally clear dividing line of the unfriend button. Clicking that button isn’t just a way of telling your friend that you’ve broken up with them; it’s a semi-public way of signalling to all of your mutual friends (or at least any of them who decide to go sleuthing) that the relationship is over.
Being unfriended on social media is awful not just in terms of having a friendship end, but also because it leaves you exposed and embarrassed. You wonder who has noticed, and what conclusions they’ve drawn from it. Should you address it with mutual friends? Or should you leave it be until they say something? Are vicious rumors about you accompanied by out-of-context screen caps surging through the underground channels of Twitter DMs and secret Facebook groups? If yes, then what’s the best solution — a strong defense, a spirited counter-attack, or just ignore, ignore, ignore?
Perhaps the worst type of social media breakup is the stealth breakup — the one that you didn’t see coming because it wasn’t preceded by a fight or even any kind of disagreement. It’s the most disconcerting because it is completely at odds with your own narrative about the relationship — as far as you knew, everything was ticking along as it should, just like all of your other friendships. And then along with the jolt of realizing you’ve been unfriended, you have to grapple with the exquisitely destabilizing fact that your narrative was wrong, or at the very least incomplete. And if that part of your personal narrative was wrong — and not just wrong, but wrong enough that other people you thought participated in it actually vehemently disagreed with it — then what other things that you believe about yourself and your life might also be untrue?
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Women are socialized to believe that their most valuable traits are those that allow them to build social capital; they are taught to prize relationships — with partners, with friends, with family members — above all other accomplishments. They also don’t have many socially acceptable outlets for aggression, anger, or other expressions of conflict; instead, women and girls are conditioned to deal with these things in ways that are passive aggressive or underhanded. Given that, it makes sense that women are the most likely to add new friends on Facebook and other forms of social media, and also the most likely to delete friends. The latter probably occurs at least in part because women and girls are taught for their whole lives that the most injurious thing they can do to someone is cut them out of their social circle — and to ensure that they know they’ve been cut out.
Sometimes it seems like the rules of friendship have changed since I was a kid, but that’s not entirely accurate; instead, it’s more correct to say friendships these days can be broken down with awful ease into data sets that can both be analyzed on their own and also held up and compared to other friendships. I can tally up all the likes, favorites, and comments a friend scatters across my various social media platforms, and then see how those numbers look juxtaposed with how often that same friend comments, likes, and favorites posts by other people. I can see when a friend has read a message that I’ve sent them and make assumptions about how much they like me based on how long it takes between the time they read the message and when they respond. I can contrast the public tone in which they address me or disagree with me with how they talk to other people. And, perhaps most painfully, I can look back through reams of old communications and see how our attitudes toward each other have shifted. I can even, if I want, create a sort of play-by-play for myself of how our friendship has unravelled. None of this is particularly advisable, of course, but still: I can do it. Like any wound, a sore friendship longs to be poked at — and sometimes I don’t have the willpower to stop myself.
I’m not trying to say that the advent of social media is the death knell of friendship. Not only do I not think that, but I believe that the opposite is true: The internet is in fact a great facilitator of friendships, and I’ve formed many deep and lasting relationships with people I’ve met online. But having new platforms where friendships form and grow and sometimes end means that we need to learn new ways of being friends. Lately I’ve been trying my best to do this, and I’ve realized that watching several of my friendships crumble on social media has taught me a few things.
First off, I’ve realized that social media is not the measure of a friendship. Oh, it can look like a tool for measuring, and can give you numbers a-plenty, if numbers are what you crave. But those numbers don’t necessarily mean anything, at least not without context — a context that can be fuzzy at best, given that at least half of it exists in another person’s head. Put simply, you can’t decode how healthy a friendship is based on some kind of equation where you divide how many of your profile pictures a friend has liked by the number of years you’ve been Facebook friends.
Secondly, I’ve found that social media is a double-edged sword that can be both a gift to and a blight on friendships. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et. al. are great places to meet like-minded people or cement the bonds of existing relationships. But the flip side of this is that social media does not give an accurate view of who a person is or what their life is like. I don’t mean that people make their life seem nicer on social media by cherry picking nice photos and cute stories — although that certainly does happen — but more that social media offers simultaneously too much information about a person and not enough, with the end result being a completely inaccurate picture of who someone is.
In the days before social media, it might have been possible to carry on a friendship with a person for years without knowing that they have very strong feelings about, say, circumcision. Presumably this person has an expansive and fascinating personality of which their views on circumcision form only a small part, and yet their Facebook feed might be little more than article after heated article about circumcision. If Facebook is the only way that you interact with this person, of course they will begin to seem one-dimensional, and if your views differ from theirs (or are similar but not as passionate), you may begin to judge them, or assume that they judge you for not being like them.
The tone that someone adopts online can also make friendships fraught, especially those that begin offline and then move onto social media. This is something that I feel especially aware of when it comes to my own interactions online; I worry that I come off as an angry, humorless person who only wants to pick apart the minor details of a case or story, a persona that is at odds with the mostly sunny, loving person I feel that I am offline. I don’t mean to imply here that there is a wrong or bad tone to maintain on social media; rather, I wonder whether the way I appear online is an innacurate reflection of who I really am.
Finally, I’ve realized that being unfriended often has little to do with me and more to do with what the person who unfriended me is going through. I don’t mean to say that I’ve always been blameless when the unfriend button has been aimed in my direction — far from it — but that the reasons for it are usually far murkier and less personal than I imagine them to be, especially when the unfriending seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes I have not been paying enough attention to the friendship, and the other person has projected their own insecurities and assumptions onto that fact; rather than risk anything unpleasant that might come from confonting me with their anxieties (or perhaps they have tried to gently confront me and I’ve misunderstood), it feels safer to just unfriend or unfollow me. Sometimes they are going through a period of turmoil and have had to scale back their Facebook presence in order to focus on something else. Sometimes we love each other but genuinely do not mesh well on social media; this can be a hard truth to swallow, but in my experience it’s possible for a friendship that thrives offline to not do as well online.
This takes me right back to the idea that, again, social media is not the measure of a friendship. What a friendship does or does not look like on social media does not have to determine whether or not that relationship is successful. We need to discard the idea that friendships can only be real or good if they fit a narrow model of what a relationship looks like.
Perhaps the question that lies at the heart of all this is: Does unfriending or unfollowing mean the death of a friendship? It certainly can, and in many cases it does, but in my experience it doesn’t have to. I’ve had several relationships survive an unfriending, although the recovery wasn’t easy any of the times it happened. Each case involved a lot of self-reflection, honesty, and allowance for time, space, and hurt feelings from both parties involved. We had to both nurture the friendship like a sickly plant, using trial and error to figure out whether water, sunlight, or better soil was needed to help it thrive. In some instances, the plant died. That happens sometimes, and it’s usually no one’s fault. Sometimes the plant thrived, although often by the time it had recovered it looked like a different genus or species from what it had been before.
The trickiest part has always been figuring out which plants were worth my time and energy and which were not. I still don’t have any easy answers about how to tell the friendships that can or should be saved from the ones that I should quit. But what I take comfort in is knowing that I can survive an unfriending — and sometimes the friendship can, against all odds, survive too.