Why I Unfriended You On Facebook

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This morning I read an excellent piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian entitled “Facebook and Twitter: the art of unfriending or unfollowing people”.

The article is worth a read for a number of reasons, but I’m going to focus on one in particular. Burkeman relates a recommendation put forward by Anjali Mullany, social media editor of Fast Company, to help with “friend-decluttering”. Quoting from the article a bit:

Mullany recommends a friend-decluttering exercise that she admits sounds “weird”, but that she predicts will become more and more widely accepted. She advises making a public proclamation on Facebook in which you specify the criteria by which you’ll henceforth be defining people as “friends”. Maybe you’ll resolve only to remain Facebook friends with people you’ve met at least once in real life, or maybe you’ll use a stricter standard, such as whether you’d invite that person to your wedding. Explain, in the same proclamation, that the consequent defriending shouldn’t be taken personally, and that you’re doing it to a number of people at once. Then start clearing out the clutter.

About a year ago I de-activated my Facebook account for a couple of months and then, before I started really using it again, aggressively culled many of my Facebook “friends”.

I believe my friend count peaked around 600-700 or so a couple of years ago, last year (before I undertook the most recent culling) I had 231, after the cull this was all the way down to around 100 and today I have 143.

Like many people, at the height of my Facebook use I had accepted friend requests from even the loosest of connections: someone I met a party once, high school classmates, professional contacts and the like who only really fit the most inclusive definition of the word “friend”.

I decided to take a break from Facebook for a number of reasons that I did not really go into at the time (mostly having to do with Facebook being a distraction from other more meaningful pursuits and the platform’s ongoing cavalier attitude towards the privacy of their users) and I was not sure if I would ever come back.

But I slowly realized that there were a small handful of people I really did miss being in contact with. These, it would stand to reason, were my real Facebook friends. So I did come back, but at the same time decided to remove the “friends” so I could focus more on my Friends.

My Criteria

I did not go so far as to publicly announce the screen I used to determine who would stay and who would go, but here is what I arrived at after giving it considerable thought.

My Facebook friends (and this is the screen I still use today) are people who:

  1. I do not have regular daily contact with through any other means (in real life, at work, through other social networks, etc.)
  2. I would look up and make an earnest attempt to see if I were to visit the city where they live (and of course hope that they would do the same if they visited my town)

Simple. But I found that this (in addition to “un-liking” nearly all of the brand pages I had been following) dramatically reduced the amount of noise and made Facebook something I could check once or twice a day and read only updates from people I was not getting otherwise that I genuinely cared about reading.

And believe it or not, I heard practically nothing from the people I un-friended, leading me to believe that they likely were not all that interested in my friendship (such as it was) in the first place. That perhaps they were using Facebook in the same way I had been: to collect a large number of loose connections instead of nurturing a a smaller number of closer ones.

I wish I could have explained it to them at the time (and maybe I should have), but honestly I’m not convinced that there would have been much upside. We just parted ways, as often happens in real-life when a friendship has run its course, and I think that’s perfectly ok. Being connected indefinitely to someone you’re simply not close to anymore is one thing I don’t believe we need technology to “help” us out with.

Today I’m back on Facebook and even relatively active (I’m probably on the site daily, but not, by any means, at all times) but still don’t post nearly as often. Twitter remains my primary social network (for now) and it troubles me (a little) that I’m not sure I could tell you succinctly what my criteria is for following people over there.

So I would like, over time, to take the same approach to all of my online networks and make some decisions about who I connect with and why and then regularly revisit the decisions I make and how I choose to make and communicate them.

I believe that being intentional about why we do what we do can help us improve, sometimes dramatically, nearly any aspect of our lives, but it seems particularly apt in the present moment to help us to manage information overload and form more meaningful connections with one another.

Your Thoughts

That’s my take, but now I’m curious: If you had to put them to paper (or the screen) what are your criteria for friending people on Facebook, following them on Twitter or connecting with them on other social networks?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • I’m not sure if I made the cut due to #1 or #2, but I think you took a wise approach. Expect my criteria would be fairly similar!

  • Annalisa Hilliard

    Adam, thanks for this post!

    When I first starting reading your post, I felt like you were losing out on networking & branding opportunities by “unfriending” people. But, as I continued reading I became more and more convinced of your perspective. Afterall, I don’t actually use FB for those purposes. My networks of choice for those activities are Twitter and LinkedIn.

    I relate to your feeling of burnout and needing to take a break from FB (and other social networks) for the important things in life. I’ve also taken breaks from time-to-time. I loved your paragraph about being intentional about why we do what we do, and who we make connections with in all aspects of our lives.

    So, I relate and agree with what you’re saying across the board with social media on a personal level. But how about for brands? How do they use social media to connect with their audience, and build relationships? They also must be intentional, right? This is an important understanding for a brand to have.

    Thanks again!

  • Well, first of all, thanks for reading the post.

    For brands what I would say is…it’s complicated.

    To date most brands (it seems to me) have been focused on achieving the widest reach possible (and often paying handsomely for it) but in my opinion that’s a bit short-sighted. They’re mapping a traditional mass media fallacy onto a new media reality.

    People “like” photos? We’ll post more photos! To get more “engagement”

    But what does that mean?

    Our fans like coupons and deals! …

    …like they always have…so what’s new here?

    To me the most interesting (and potentially useful) uses of social media for brands are:

    a) listening to current and prospective customers and using that to inform business strategy and
    b) the network effects created by your fans sharing your message

    If you’re still focusing on getting a lot of fans and followers instead…I would say you’re potentially (likely?) missing the boat.