When “unfriend” is named the word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, we know that social networking and the statusphere it gives rise to have become truly mainstream. But what does it mean to be unfriended, and why do people opt to knock each other off their personal social graphs?
For the 300M users of Facebook, adding friends and unfriending them are everyday acts in a socnet economy where cohort connections are a currency.
From breakups to too-frequent and annoying status updates, from unflattering photo-tagging to inappropriate wallposts and other breaches of online etiquette, there are many justifications for unfriending on Facebook or other socnets like Twitter (where the correct term would be “unfollow”). In the wake of the announcement from NOAD, a flurry of articles appeared in the press explaining “top reasons why” people pare down their social network.
One reason for cutting digital ties that emerges repeatedly in articles and comments is the difficulty of seeing someone’s lifecasting streams the end of a romance or close friendship. Admissions about it being “too painful to watch” as an ex-lover or friend posts the minutiae of their life—especially when you are no longer part of it—account for many a deletion.
Of course, as researchers have found, one’s social graph on a site like Facebook or Twitter is not necessarily indicative of real-world friendships at all. Digital connectivity and offline intimacy are two very different things. This is surely demonstrated by the number of times “I had never met them” appears on the aforementioned lists of top reasons why “friends” are cut from socnet lists. Maybe this also accounts for the phenomenal success of Burger King’s infamously silly (and wildly successful) trade-a friend-for-a-burger “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign.
Those who are socnet-savvy are becoming increasingly adept at developing stratified systems to measure and manage ever-more granular online intimacies. “As we continue to embrace living in a highly connected digital world,” write the always-insightful cultural analysts at TrendsSpotting, “we also learn to how to manage and take control of it.”
The twitter “lists” feature is one such mechanism for extending and selectively publicizing your online social network. The highly public nature of these lists certainly raises the stakes and risks for unfollowings, if one’s tweeps become irrelevant or worse. “We are informed by those we follow,” observes digiphile blogger Alex Howard, but “we are defined by those who follow us.” Well put.