The urge to purge your Facebook friend list is a common one – how many times have you see a status update informing you “if you’re reading this, we’re still friends” – but why do we feel guilty in cutting off people we no longer feel a connection to? The answer may be in the way we hold ourselves to certain standards with real world relationships.
Having something bad weighing on your conscience can stem from the feeling that you may be violating some kind of socially accepted standard, and that our behaviour is controllable. As a rule of thumb, people are great at justifying their own behaviour to avoid feeling any guilt, but it can still be uncomfortable when we don’t meet the standards implied by friendship, even though we may not have been in contact with that person for years.
Where’s the line between IRL and social media?
If we think of social media as an extension of our IRL (in real life) friendships, it’s easy to see how we apply these standards of friendship to the way we interact with others through social media. This includes poor judgment when it comes to sticking to personal boundaries, and it can extend to those who we only have an online connection to and have never met physically.
We can think of these friends as “weak ties” – not everyone can be your BFF – but they still have an important role to play. People need connection, and if this starts to break down, it can mean feeling isolated. With social media being as pervasive as it is, these weak ties have become a part of the way we may feel integrated into society as a whole.
Look it at this way – you have 3,500 friends on Facebook, but you want to cut that figure down to 500. Curating a list of close friends, family members and colleagues will undoubtedly make your experience more satisfying, but to get there, you would need to evaluate your relationship to 3,000 other people. That can stir up many issues, and create concerns that a soon-to-be ex-friend may notice and confront you about the matter.
This brings us to another aspect – we fear that if our friends notice that they’ve been unfriended, it will reflect poorly on us. You may feel bad if it’s a stranger, even though your decision may be arbitrary, but if it’s someone you know, the fear of seeming like a bad person becomes that much stronger.
A case study
Recently, I cut off ties to someone I had been a Facebook friend with for over a decade. The guy was a professional comedian and worked in film; he was super smart and super funny. However, the wheels started to fall off our friendship around about the time that the showdown between US presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump really started to heat up in 2016.
The fact that Clinton had a shot at becoming president seemed to short-circuit something in my friend’s brain. Gone was his sense of humour and insight into the absurdity of modern life. Instead, it was replaced by something dark. Each day, his updates would consist solely of anti-Clinton bile and invective. He would defend the more outrageous aspects of Trump – his comments about assaulting women, for example – by attacking Hillary. I found this deeply unsettling, but even then, gave my friend the benefit of the doubt by muting him for several months and hoping it would blow over.
When I checked in, I could see that if anything, things had gotten more intense. Crazy conspiracy theories were often invoked, there were a lot of ad hominem attacks on his other friends for expressing opposing views to his, and there was a lot of thinly disguised racism and sexism. I felt like I had no choice but to cut our connection. Weeks later, he confronted me. I explained why I couldn’t be his friend, but was told that it was “comedy” and that I didn’t “get it”. Still, he was genuinely upset, and even though I had come to the conclusion that he was someone I regretted getting to know, I still felt bad. So, how do you get over this?
No room for negativity
If the content someone shares online isn’t serving you in a way that is beneficial or positive, then it’s time to reassess your connection. If the person no longer fits into your life, whether it’s through toxicity or just a fading friendship, then it leaves room for you to prioritise other relationships over that particular one.
One tool is to assess how the loss of a specific relationship would affect us on a scale of one to ten, with one being “meh” and ten being a terrible sense of guilt. What may be an eight in Facebook terms may be a two or three when placed in perspective to real life issues.
Another way is to consider the “spotlight effect”. We tend to think that everyone is going to notice our behaviour, but the reality is that a lot of the time, people don’t really take much notice. If we cut a connection, the chances are that person won’t notice for a long time.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a better online experience, and while making that happen can take some reflection and being honest with yourself, it’s a necessary step to make personal social media use more pleasant. When it comes to culling your friend list, think of it like ripping a plaster off: It’s going to hurt for a moment and you’re not going to like it, but it’s way better than the alternative.