Unfriending: Burning Bridges through Social Media


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In 2009, unfriend was New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year. A controversial practice, unfriending involves removing contacts from your “friend” list in Facebook. Because the average Facebook user has 130 friends, it is usually too large of a group to attempt to keep track of so unfriending was a relatively safe practice.

Enter the Unfriend Finder, a Firefox add-on that will “tell you which friends have removed you, who has deactivated their accounts, people you have requested friendship with and who has declined your friend request” and uses Facebook alerts to let you know about this activity. Now when you removing someone from your list be prepared to suffer the social consequences since it is likely they will be alerted.

Has Facebook Devalued Friendship?

Because Facebook’s method of adding new contacts requires calling them a “friend”, many of have accumulated many “friends” on Facebook that we would not define in typical terms as a true friend. This has created debate about how to qualify each of your contacts. This January at Davos they even discussed the devaluation of the entire concept of friendship. Last fall Jimmy Kimmel declared November 17th “National Unfriend Day” as a response to this concern and said that he “believes Facebook is cheapening the meaning of friendship”.

Appropriate Unfriending Situations

There are always scenarios which require a more severe action and when burning a bridge is appropriate because maybe the bridge has already been burned by the other party. For example, at the end of a relationship it may be appropriate to separate yourself from the other person. This may depend on whether you are the dumper or the dumpee. As explained in this CNN Netiquitte article, if you happen to be the dumper you may want to exercise a bit of sympathy and allow your ex to do the unfriending. Other scenarios where unfriending is called for are similar to those times in real life where you need to walk away. For example when a contact becomes strange, inappropriate, or exhibiting stalker behavior.

Professional Conflict of Interest

Depending on your profession adding certain contacts could create legal or ethical problems and unfriending is called for. Many medical and legal professionals have been forced to evaluate how to connect and communicate through all of the new social media platforms, Facebook included. While the governing boards are rushing to determine the guidelines for how to manage your contacts many lawyers and doctors are faced with creating their own definitions.

One of my favorite episodes of South Park brilliantly depicted the strong social implications of “friending” someone on Facebook. And while it may seem obvious not to friend a client, Facebook friends are often a great source for new business. So it makes sense for small and solo law firms to present their work and abilities to their network. However once these “friends” become clients the lines get blurred and there are obvious serious potential threats to client privacy.

Using Lists Instead of Unfriending

Some people argue that you should prune your friend list if you have not seen or interacted with the person in more than a year or two. I do not agree with this aspect. My goals with social media are to keep in touch with a wide variety of people, some of which I only know professionally and may only talk to every few years. Another argument for unfriending is to clean up a news feed with clutter from distant friends. Instead of a unilateral removal of contacts because you are bothered by too many updates, use the settings on your news page to block the user’s updates from your news feed.

One method of ensuring that I have control over the information I share is by using lists. I have my contacts filtered into a number of lists and keep my professional contacts in a list where the information they receive is limited and maintains a certain level of privacy however still allows me to keep in touch. You can also filter your news feed by lists, so if your goal is to clean up your news page you can create a list of the contacts you want to follow and update your news feed to only display those updates.

Using social media should be done with specific goals and purposes in mind. As such, your message and behavior should be tailored to the various social media outlets appropriately. For example, LinkedIn is used as a professional platform, Facebook is generally more personal and Twitter is a bit of a mix. Regardless of what social media tool you are using keep general common sense and etiquette in mind; have good reasons for your actions and do not do anything you might regret later.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ginatrapani/5075553265/)


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  • Good points, Karin. Most users are in one camp or the other regarding the “ethics” and usefulness of unfriending vs hiding on Facebook. I use lists for Twitter but removed just about all privacy settings for my Facebook account and instead temper (somewhat) what I say. I’d like to have lists for colleagues/professionals, but Facebook has shown time and time again that it has no regard for privacy promises and considerations.

  • Good post. Sometimes I unfriend people not because of my relationship with them but because of their usage of social media.

    If I consider someone too spammy on FB, adios. Some people push their Twitter feeds into their status updates which just seems a little lazy IMHO.

  • Excellent post, which I thoroughly agree with. I tend to use social media sites more for business/keeping in touch with friends rather than personal venting and issues.

    I have unfriended a few times and got thoroughly abused by those I unfriended.

    I think we need to be a bit more responsible for what we put out there and think carefully about who we add.

  • Acquaintance Book just doesn’t have the same ring. This is why I separate my work from play. Makes like so much for sane.

  • @aaron I agree that separation is important but when a client “friends” me, they obviously think we have a connection that I don’t want to deny. That’s why I use lists to filter the information that goes out to different groups.