Saying goodbye to obligatory friends

Last year, I conducted a massive “friend cull” on Facebook. It took about a week to complete the process that, ultimately, led to severing Facebook ties with 125 people. Most of those connections were deleted on the first day of the process, but some people were harder to cut. But a year later, I can fairly say that I have (almost) no regrets.

The inspiration, or maybe the “courage”, for this friend cull came from my PhD research. That is because one of the sections of my PhD findings related to how and why people connect with others online (especially as it relates to reputation). And, unsurprisingly, most of my research participants talked about “obligatory” connections to some extent.

It was interesting to me to hear the number of people talking about connecting with others out of a sense of obligation or politeness. Equally, participants spoke about a reluctance to terminate connections because doing so might create an awkward or embarrassing situation – especially if they were to encounter a recently “unfriended” connection in an offline environment. This reluctance caused some people to use privacy settings to “mute” or “hide” connections so that they were still connected, even though the hidden contact did not have access to everything they shared (and/or the participant no longer saw the hidden contact’s content).

Of course, I could see myself in many of the statements that my participants made. Only quite often these obligatory connections caused me a bit of stress and frustration. And so, I decided to review my own (long) list of connections and to (finally) ditch a load of them.

Most of the people I unfriended were already in a limited-access group (only seeing 10-20% of my content) so it’s not like these were my nearest-and-dearest. It was a group of people who either never interacted with my content (not even a wee “like” of a new profile photo) or only interacted when they had something negative to say. And, likewise, I rarely interacted with their content. Importantly, the people I deleted are people that I would not want to spend my free time with.

This two-tiered sharing practice (limited vs full access) is not necessarily because I don’t want people to know what I am posting. (Although that was the case for at least some limited connections.) The system is about creating useful conversations. It isn’t about limiting opposing views (I don’t), rather it is about the quality of chatter and the level of kindness and support I receive from a connection (and that I am willing or able to give to a connection).

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that many of these (former) connections are nice enough people and I wish them all the best of luck and happiness in life. But they are not my friends. And most of them never were my friends. Acquaintances, yes. But friends? No, not really. There were people I went to school with and other connections from my hometown. There were a few folks that I’d met briefly and we decided to keep in touch. And there were some people I’ve never met “in real life” but I somehow acquired them as a connection.

And at the end of the cull, I realised that all of the deleted connections had been in that limited group. They were people with whom I didn’t want to share “everything”. But some of them were also filtered out of my own Facebook feed, too. I had their accounts hidden so that I didn’t have to see the content that they shared – especially when their content tended to be anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist, anti-anything that wasn’t white, Christian, conservative Americans.

Those who remain on my friend list remain because I would happily spend “real life” time with them. Or they bring me joy (by the content they post and/or by how they interact with my content). Or they are family. Or they share insightful and thought-provoking content. Or there is just something about them that makes me want them in my life.

A year later, my Facebook experience is a lot more enjoyable. I have removed additional connections here and there, and I have even added a few. But the process has helped me to develop new rules for who I connect with. In fact, I have a list of questions that I consider when trying to decide if I want to be connected to someone.

  • How do I know this person?
  • What is our connection to each other?
  • Why are we connected online?
  • Why should we be connected?
  • Do they participate in my online life?
  • And do I participate in theirs?
  • Do they bring me joy?
  • Do I actively want to know how they are doing?
  • Does the content this person shares bring a smile to my face?
  • Does it make me feel happy?
  • When they share details about their life, do I actively care?
  • Do I really want to know how they’re doing?
  • What will happen if I end the connection?
  • What do I want this person to know about me?
  • Why do I want them to know these things?

But the reality is that it is not about what they post. I mean, I’ve kept people on my list who post content that is quite contrary to my political, social, and moral/ethical leanings. And I have connections who vaguebook and overshare and share too often and don’t have a basic grasp of language … all of those things that my PhD research shows can lead to a negative reputational evaluation. But, much like my research participants, I can look past those things (given the right circumstances, such as actually liking the person!).

It’s not about what people share, it’s about the relationships we have – online or offline. It’s about how much joy they bring to my life. And, I hope, it’s about the joy that I can bring to their lives, too.

So, may I encourage you to review your own social media connections and make the cull, if you can. It can be scary, yes, but by culling the herd a bit, you can concentrate on the healthy, vibrant connections that bring you joy in this life.

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