I met someone on a recent trip and wanted to stay in contact with him. Naturally, this meant following him on Instagram or friending him on Facebook, or both. He said he was more active on Facebook, so I located his profile page there. Almost immediately, I was excited to see that we had a friend in common. But then I noticed the little “add friend” icon in the corner of this mutual friend’s picture. Odd, I thought, we’re already friends. Must be some sort of glitch. I clicked on the mutual friend’s page and saw the big blue “add friend” box. I clicked on his list of friends. I was not on there. I had been unfriended.
I felt a pain in my chest, as if I had swallowed a piece of hard candy prematurely and it was struggling to pass through my esophagus. What had I done to warrant being unfriended? Had I offended this person in some way? I’m not very active on Facebook, and stopped posting about politics years ago. I scrolled through my page, wondering if perhaps someone had tagged me in something this person disliked. But my Facebook page remained a sanitized, generic version of my life. In fact, it was quite the opposite of his page, which was full of political postings.
I scrolled through his page, realizing that it had been a long time since I looked at it. I had not seen many of these posts, and I wondered when he unfriended me. He posted regularly, mutiple times per week, and I went back about six months in his timeline before I saw a post I remembered. It was a video he shared about a cause he supported. So, for six months I never noticed that he had unfriended me. That should be an indication that we clearly weren’t close friends. But isn’t that what Facebook is for? To maintain connections with people who aren’t your close friends? You text your close friends, you DM your close friends, you see your close friends IRL. Everyone else you keep on Facebook, staying in touch via a like or yearly birthday greeting.
I don’t keep up with many of my Facebook friends. But this doesn’t mean I want to unfriend them. In fact, I have Facebook friends who I haven’t seen activity from in years, then suddenly there’s an update on their life, for better or worse, and I’m glad to know about it. It’s prompted me to reach out and reconnect. And I’m grateful to be in touch again, even if our exchange is brief. That’s why there’s something about the act of unfriending that just feels so harsh. It’s not admitting we’ve drifted apart yet I wish you well. It’s saying I no longer consider you to be a friend. It’s rejection.
The ironic thing is that this person was the one who sent me the friend request in the first place. I met him while traveling and thought he was a really interesting person, but when I later tried to connect with him on social media, I couldn’t find him. So I was excited to get the request from him a few weeks later. I posted a few messages on his page related to travel, and he liked one of my pictures. While this was the extent of our contact following our friending, I still enjoyed reading his posts, which kept me informed on the political situation in his country. So was my inactivity on Facebook the cause of my unfriending? Was he cleaning house of inactive friends? Was he Marie Kondo-ing me?
Once the sting wore off, I considered what it meant to be unfriended. There are people who, for various reasons, I have chosen to unfollow on Facebook rather than unfriend. Is that fraudulent? Is my now unfriend simply more honest than I am? But is it really necessary to press that button and declare the friendship over? I understand that it’s the healthier thing to do if a romantic or emotional relationship has reached its end, and seeing this person on Facebook is causing stress or anxiety. I get it if Facebook caused your blood pressure to rise during 2016 and so you had to do some unfriending. But barring these circumstances, what am I to infer from being unfriended? I almost wish you had to give a reason, like when you unsubscribe from a mailing list.
I must acknowledge that part of my surprise in being unfriended is that this person, like me, is a Gen-Xer. I could make more sense of it if I was unfriended by a Millennial (although I’d be shocked if I was unfriended by a Gen Z, since I don’t think there are any of them on Facebook). Aren’t Millennials more casual about social media friendships? Every Millennial I know has a friend count hovering around one thousand, so how could these connections be anything other than casual? But us Gen X-ers tend to keep our friend count in the low hundreds. I can speculate on the reasons, from whether we use Facebook to reconnect with old friends rather than meet new friends, to privacy concerns, to simply being too busy. But having a lower friend count generally means that you know all of your friends. I can honestly name at least three distinguishing facts about everyone on my friend list. And so, for me, each friendship does matter.
Of course, while Millennials may be more casual about sending friend requests, they don’t usually unfriend. Millennials tend to ghost their profiles, leaving them active but not posting anything aside from an obligatory update for relatives. I admit to adopting this method myself in recent years, and I know other Millennial-curious Gen-Xers who do the same (you know, those of us Gen X-ers who like trying out life as a Millennial every so often). But I have Gen-X friends who have decided to close their Facebook accounts rather than ghost the rest of us. So while I am no longer Facebook friends with them, I understand it is because they have walked away from the platform. In effect, they have unfriended everyone, not just singled me out for termination.
But maybe it wasn’t just my generational perspective that was leaving me feeling slighted by this unfriending. Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces. We’re sensitive beings, even if we don’t show it on the surface. Or maybe it’s because I’m a traveler. I enjoy meeting people on my journeys and making new friends. It’s possible that if I had been unfriended by a co-worker from a job I left ten years ago, I might not care so much. But this unfriending came from someone in my tribe, a fellow traveler. That hurts. I suppose I should understand that this is the world we live in today. We all got excited about social media and friended each other. Then we started arguing and began canceling, unfriending, unfollowing. The very thing that connected us is now making it easier for us to avoid each other.
The problem is that while you can rationalize social media behavior in an attempt to delegitimize its impact, while you can wear a Twitter insult as a badge of pride, we are still human beings. We are emotional, we are social, we have feelings. Words and actions have meanings. This is why we argue. This is also why we need to listen to each other. Mostly, this is why we need to think before we speak, before we post, before we cancel. It’s possible that the person who unfriended me understood this but didn’t care. Or he cared enough about something to find me deserving of the unfriending. I could send him a message asking why, but do I want to know the answer? The more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t want to know.
Was it better when we could naturally drift apart? In the years before Facebook, I exchanged letters with a boy from my past. He was special to me, and I often wondered if our paths would cross again. When we all joined Facebook, he didn’t. It frustrated me, because I hoped it would have allowed us to be in contact more frequently. At that point in my life, I did in fact want to know what he was eating for breakfast. But eventually, after ten plus years, the letters stopped. I had gotten over my feelings for him. Would this have been possible if we were Facebook friends? Would seeing his posts or checking out his profile page have kept me hanging on for too long? Conversely, would a Facebook friendship have strengthened our connection? I’ll never know. We never acknowledged the end of our correspondence. There was no unfriending. If I were to run into him on the street today, I’m sure I would greet him warmly.
But what about the one who unfriended me? How would I greet him? I doubt I would ask him why he did it. Maybe I would just wave. In the end, I decided not to send a friend request to the person I recently met. Our mutual friend was no longer mutual. And while it had nothing to do with this new person, the discovery of my unfriending gave me pause, and by the time I had processed it, the moment with the new friend had passed. Still, I value the friendships I have, whether we’ve spent all of three days together in a foreign country or spent a decade as classmates. One person’s actions can’t diminish this value. If anything, they’ve increased it.