I had the experience of being formally ‘unfriended’ on Facebook recently and it gave me pause for thought about the way that social media has changed the way that we interact with people in the Digital Age. While the naysayers and luddites trumpet on about the internet having a degenerative affect on our social skills, this incident showed me that, in fact, quite the opposite is true. Facebook has added layers of complexity to our basic relationships that its designers doubtlessly never dreamt of as being a part of their user experience.
In many ways, this act of unfriendliness demonstrated how much the internet has added to our social interactions in microcosmic form. The trouble all began when I made a new friend. Seemingly, this is an innocent enough thing to have done. I first met the new friend on Facebook and we later became acquainted in meat-space and our cyber-friendship evolved. The problem with this was that a certain faction among my old friends harbored animosity for the newly acquired acquaintance which simmered away until it finally reached a zenith of social necessity.
It seems that the catalyst that finally necessitated the drawing of cyber-battle lines revolved around the evergreen motive for online hostilities (at least in the uber secretive world of arcane occult societies)- the publication of an image on a website. As I happened to be the designer of this particular piece of real estate in the blogosphere, I was approached to remove the offending picture. My reply was, that while I was the web designer I was not the webmaster and their request should be directed to the owner of the website. Apparently, inflammatory e-mails were exchanged like cannonades across the void of cyberspace and, after these opening hostilities, ambassadors were sent out to inform all of the parties not directly connected to the conflict between the two warring states, but who have pre-existing diplomatic ties, exactly which side they are not on. And so it was that the embassy from one side delivered my “unfriending” in a formal manner so that I could be made aware of the general disapproval in my choice of associates.
In synopsis; the “unfriendly” notification informed me that the “unfriender” (let’s call him ‘the party of the first part’) had had a very nasty message delivered via his inbox from my webmaster friend (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) and, as I was the obvious connection between them (I still don’t quite know how when this is actually a squabble between witches and I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever want to be a witch of any description whatsoever), that I (referred to as ‘the party of the third part’) was to be banished from the part of cyberspace currently under the control of the party of the first part (and their immediate associates). I know- it is complicated from where I am looking at it too.
Now, I have been “unfriended” in the past but the process is generally not so formal. The usual practice, as most of us would already be familiar with it, generally involves being deleted quietly from someone’s friends list and barred from having access to the private information and innermost thoughts that they post for 1 billion people to read on the web. This added facet to the “unfriending” process at first seemed like a call back to the schoolyard where your 3rd grade buddy told you that he couldn’t be friends with you anymore because the cool kids said so (it is also kind of like the way that your buddies’ spouses tell them not to go to the pub or play the horses with them anymore). Obviously, the “unfriender” could have just clicked on the delete button and been done with it but taking the time to send me a note to inform me of my impeding state of “unfriendedness” implies a deeper communication (unless the cool kids got to him).
This added layer of intention is a part and parcel of the social media experience and has fundamentally changed the way that we interact socially. In the dark ages before the interwebz (yes there was such a time), nobody would write somebody a nice note to tell them that they had decided to scratch their name out of the rolodex. Communications with people that you had chosen to “unfriend” tended to fall into one of two categories; legal proceedings or death threats. Nobody’s mum made them sit down and write the kid down the road a nice note to say that they weren’t allowed to play with them anymore- you just avoided them at the pub and stopped answering the phone when they called.
The separation afforded by the internet has made it possible to add a layer of complexity to the process of dumping someone from your birthday party invitation list. It allows you the comfort of being able to let them know exactly which character flaws you cannot abide, express your disappointment in their life choices and still maintain the mask of regret at having to sever ties, creating an image, at least internally, that you have done everything possible to save the relationship with an otherwise irredeemable rogue. Not only is this process of justification a salve for your conscience but it allows you to cut off the party of the third part on your own terms- or so you think anyway.
Where, except on Facebook could social interactions develop such levels of complexity?