The awkwardness of de-friending

by David Spark on November 25, 2008

I just finished writing a post for Mashable entitled “Twelve Great Tales of De-Friending” where I sought to interview people who had gone through the difficult decision to de-friend someone, and others that were coping with the fact that they had been de-friended.

Here’s the universal truth I discovered about individuals within online social networks. Everyone, in their own mind, has a vision as to what their social network is. The problem is that vision is only in their head and it only comes out when they feel they have to defend an action they took, such as an online de-friending.

In all the interviews I conducted for my de-friending piece, people would very eloquently explain the purpose of their social network, and the parameters that they set up for themselves. Every explanation made perfect sense. The problem is they were communicating that explanation to me, not to the person who had been de-friended.

David Erickson (@derickson), Director of e-Strategies for Tunheim Partners commented about this phenomenon that everyone has their own viewpoint of how a network should behave. He feels that some choose to impose their beliefs as to what a social network should and should not be.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain personality type who are adamant about what they think is the proper use of Twitter and they get all cranky when people “misuse” it. These people will post a Tweet announcing “Fair Warning: I will unfollow anyone who talks politics on Twitter!” Others believe Twitter should only be used for its “intended” purpose, to tell your followers where you are physically located at any given moment.

De-friending is often a passive aggressive action

Online, we can do it swiftly, by selecting the option, “Remove from Friends.” No need for an explanation. It’s over in a single click. In the real world, we simply ignore certain individuals we want to de-friend. Over time, the friendship fades away. We rarely make public pronouncements (e.g. “I’m no longer your friend”), and so unlike online de-friending we rarely take a single action that indicates closure.

But sometimes de-friendings aren’t about closure. A de-friending may be about shifting a person into a different social bucket. For example, you’ve heard people say things like, “My business relationships are on LinkedIn and my personal relationships are on Facebook.” That’s a fantasy. No one’s life is that clearly segmented in which they can live separately in two worlds with no overlap. Our business and personal lives are intermingled. While we all know that not all friendships are created equal, we still want to maintain many relationships. Robin Wolaner, CEO of, a social network for people 40+ ran into an uncomfortable episode where she had to de-friend some people she barely knew yet received far too much public information about their lives. While Wolaner had a very legitimate reason to de-friend, it was very difficult to convey why she did it. “I wish there was a way to de-friend without the implied insult that goes with it,” said Wolaner.

Turn down the noise

To limit the number of de-friendings, many, such as Robin Wolaner, are calling for social networks to include a feature to turn down the noise or mute certain individuals. Facebook allows you to do this throughout your newsfeed, allowing you to select the option to “hear more about Pete” or “hear less about Pete.” Turning down the noise is a less dramatic action than de-friending. Conversely, you can also limit the amount of information you want that person to see.

Irene S. Levine, PhD, maintains Fractured Friendships, a blog about friendships among women. She constantly hears stories from women having problems breaking up with a friend. I spoke to her about friendships in general and friendships over the Internet. She hit a few important truths about friendships:

  • There’s a myth that friendships last forever. Often they don’t. Sometimes friendships just come to a natural end. People get busy and they move on.
  • We have far more Internet friendships than we have real life friendships.
  • The more ties there are between two people the more likely that friendship will continue to stick.
  • The definition of a friend in the real world and a friend on the Internet is very different.
  • When you break off a relationship you have to think about the collateral damage. Will losing this friend damage my work or anything else? How can I best handle this?

Per that last issue, one other person I interviewed commented, “I’ve had some other unfavorable social networking experiences and while it’s a great tool, especially for marketers, it really can make you and your reputation far more vulnerable than ever before.”

If you read my piece on Mashable, you’ll discover the story of “Jill,” who was de-friended by “Megan” along with a few other select people. While it was initially a negative experience, “Jill” learned a lot more about all of her relationships:

De-friending select people within a circle within a broader social network has some very interesting and very powerful ramifications. Call it petty and immature, but online communities bring tremendous transparency to relationships.

What’s been your experience with de-friending? I just had an experience where a few people stopped following me on Twitter. But then again that happens all the time. It’s just this time I knew about it because I started using a service called Qwitter. Read the tale in the post entitled, “When technology tells us we have no friends.”

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