Unfollow: Social Media and the Sliding Scale of Friendship

As seen on Five Star FridaySyndicated on BlogHer.com
Social media is supposed to be all about connections. So what happens when those connections fray?

Most of my online connections started organically enough – the first people I ‘friended’ on Facebook were real-life friends, relatives and online friends whose relationships had been cultivated during years of getting to know each other through our blogs.

Next came the coworkers, the old high-school and university buddies, the long-lost roommates we spent hours discovering in the wormhole that is another person’s friends list.

And then came twitter, where my collection inflated; our personal boundaries for claiming knowledge of one another expanding exponentially to anybody that engaged online; anybody that followed me first; anybody that wanted in.

Sometimes, I would (and still do) get a scary, first-day-of-school kind of feeling about interactions on social media. Do I know you well enough to friend request you? Should I follow or are we not there yet? Are your rules the same as mine? Am I overstepping or do I just not see the welcome mat laid at my feet?

Eventually I began to impose arbitrary systems for keeping track of my social media connections: if LinkedIn was my Rolodex, Facebook would be my address book and Twitter would be my catchall. I would engage with the appropriate level of privacy vs. information sharing, deciding who would be interested in, and with whom I would feel most comfortable, sharing personal photos; whom would benefit most from my off-the-cuff witticisms; whom would most appreciate carefully vetted news items and of course, with whom I could most expertly and benevolently share my professional work and build my profile as a writer.

But this is a system that is difficult to sustain. If Twitter is supposed to be a place where literally anybody can talk with anybody else, at what point do I move somebody out of the, ‘we have knowledge of each other online’ category to the, ‘Following’ category? If I met you at a conference and we shared a laugh, am I obligated to follow you on Twitter? If you follow me on Twitter, am I obligated to accept your Facebook friend request? If there is no way in hell our businesses will ever overlap and I don’t even really like you very much, must we exchange LinkedIn profiles?

Sometimes, when this all gets to be too much, I demote people. Well, that’s harsh. What I do is semi-regularly happen upon somebody in a friend list somewhere that I realize either a) I haven’t interacted with in a long, long time b) has consistently been bringing me down with their online shenanigans c) has truly done something to piss me off or d) unfollowed me though I didn’t realize it and so I return the favour.

It all becomes very petty, actually, a game I tire easily of playing. I start to think about opening the boundaries altogether, removing all semblance of personal information from social media and just letting everybody in everywhere. Or I start to think about stopping altogether. Shutting it down, privatizing, getting off, getting out. Both are liberating, scary ideas for a person living so much of her life online.

A meaningful interaction, a wonderful shared post or a tweet from somebody I had been missing usually brings me back around and out of the throes of any virtual existential crisis I may be edging toward. I manage my time online in a more productive way, and appreciate the people in my online space more, at least for a while.

And then, this week, two things:

First, a real life friendship took a total nosedive. For the sake of not airing dirty laundry, I will assume my culpability in this, but regardless of who was right or wrong, the friendship is certainly strained. Fractured. Tense and tenuous and not something I feel like I can put any more energy into at the moment.

So why is this person still sending me messages on Facebook? Why is this person still tweeting me?

If the basis of all of our online interactions stem from the fact that we have had a real life relationship, and that relationship is now – at least to me – fragmented, how is it at all possible to compartmentalize our friendship so intentionally, so perfectly, that we will no longer spend time on our real life relationship but can continue to interact online?

Next, somebody I know decently well intentionally blocked me on Twitter. Being blocked, I had assumed, was a mistaken flick of a wrist, so I candidly, and with no malice, inquired as to why I was being treated as tweeter non grata.

As it turns out, the person that had blocked me was going through a virtual existential crisis of their own. For survival or therapy, this person had culled their very small list of followers to an even smaller list, consisting only of people that this Tweeter felt had not crossed the lines that they were now imposing on their followers. 

This person had halved their small followers list, and I had landed on the chopping block, despite having never crossed any of the lines that had been laid out. They had jumped the gun. I was invited back. Unblocked.

But the damage, to my ego and to our friendship, was done. This person’s instinct was to lump me in with the expendables. The unwanteds.

This person was an old-school blogging friend to me, somebody that had accepted my hospitality and whose family had shared dinner at my family's table.

Yes, I was hurt.

I refused the offer to become a follower again. I removed this person from my Facebook profile, because, in my order of things, if you do not want me on Twitter, the most impersonal, most inclusive of social media, than I certainly do not want you on Facebook, where you are privy to my more personal interactions.

In both of these instances I am trying to reconcile the order in which I prioritize relationships with the order in which they prioritize theirs.

I am trying, but failing, to find a place where the real life connection is so easily discounted and the online becomes a place to ignore, bolster or dissolve the real.

I can’t do it. And I am totally flummoxed that it is happening. Perhaps we simply deal with conflict in different ways. Perhaps conflict has become a more complicated, layered thing in the world of social media 2.0.

In both of these instances, the real life portion of the connection seems to be the disposable thing, the part that was not cherished or cultivated, the energy siphoned from the real to the virtual, where, it seems, fences are broken and mended at the click of a mouse.

I can’t do it. As much as I am a creature of the internal, safe, glowing screen, I am more a creature of the light. I need to know where I stand with people and get confused by passive-aggressive actions.

Sometimes, it’s easy. Sometimes we exchange virtual business cards or a laugh at a conference and then enjoy the simple space we take up in each other’s online life.

And sometimes the lines become more blurred; our relationships become harder to contain, harder to compartmentalize. We begin to see people simply as chattel, as numbers, as lists, to be contracted or expanded according to whim or want.

I just cannot allow myself to remain on someone’s list when my place in their life seems to have already been culled.



  1. This is why you had to write this post and not me. Because my thoughts are so muddled I would have completely fucked it up. Because you state so eloquently and succinctly all the things I've been thinking about. The lines in social media and where they blur and intersect. Because I do believe you've just put out there what many of us are thinking. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I've had a unofficial game plan as to how I want my social media actions to unfold and you just helped me further define the plan.

  2. Yep. Thanks for articulating this. I'm starting to make an effort to make things less complicated online and keep those boundaries up. But it gets messy.

  3. Wow. For someone who doesn't really impose boundaries and opens up to anyone who wants in, it's hard to believe the complications some people impose on themselves, such as culling a twitter following. I was totally floored reading this, to tell the truth, and can't believe that a person would devote that much time to deciding how NOT to like people instead of welcoming the variety of individuals available to them. I totally agree with your last conclusion-your value should not be subject to whim or compartmentalization.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I often feel the same way, and I think a lot of us do, too, but we just don't talk about it. Sometimes the Internet - Twitter, etc. - can be a wonderful place but sometimes, despite the constant chatter and thousands of followers, it can be a terribly lonely place. It's weird questioning why certains tweets don't get a lot of replies, or why sometimes your reply to someone went unanswered. It's just WEIRD to be questioning ourselves this way. And it is hard for me too to put people into categories and stuff. It's just... I guess maybe we are all just doing it the best way we know how? Thanks for writing this, and sharing this with us all. Makes me feel less alone!

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  6. I wonder if it's a generational thing. Not that we are THAT old but we did grow up without social media.

    And it's new - we are all trying to figure out how to navigate this world. Add in blogging and you have another layer of potential craziness as some people work it to gain as many followers as they can.

    Don't get me wrong - I don't earn a living from my blog so I don't need to have a huge following. Someone who does rely on it for income, go at it. No judgements.

    I culled twitter and my blog reader recently but mostly because I want to "know" who I am following/interacting with and I just can't keep up with a zillion people. I want to really READ what you and others have written rather than skim. I want to really comment on whatever it is.

    I haven't culled FB but I have hidden some "friends" updates if they are nothing that I am particularly interested in.

    I am in social media to express my creative side/learn photography (blogging) and to make friends and build some community around my interests (blogging, FB, twitter). I am not in it for a popularity contest. You know, in case you wondered...heh.

    Really sorry about the friendships going sideways. The close friendships that I have had that have ended in that messy, unclear way have hurt much more than any romantic relationship.

    It's confusing because it seems like something that should happen when you are young and green and immature - can't we figure it out in a decent and respectful way now that we are all adults?

  7. I've reached a point where I limit my time on social media. It became almost overwhelming to me; call it social media fatigue if you will but I often need a breather. Online friendships are bizarre. Great post.

  8. I do find the whole thing utterly baffling and wish I could compartmentalize things more easily. But it seems hopeless. Just when I manage to get my Facebook to only people I know in real life, I start to get requests from people I've never met but have tweeted with. In the meantime, I've probably offended countless people by "unfriending" them (a term I despise, because I would never actually Unfriend a Friend). Same with twitter ... in reading this, I started to wonder (being a paranoid, pleasing-type) if I'd offended anyone in particular by unfollowing them. Gah ... It really does make me want to shut things down entirely some days!

  9. Wow. So true. So dead on. I'm leaving work now so I won't get into a long comment, but thank you for writing this.

  10. I`m relatively new at all of this social media blog stuff but I have been overwhelmed with it on a number of occasions in my 7 months on Twitter.

    I got overwhelmed at the FB friend requests after only a couple months in the game and I didn't know how to say no to people that had become my online "friends", so I accepted them all. It's not that I don't want to befriend them, it's just that I didn't know if I was ready for them to see my innermost thoughts and conversations with my RL friends.

    I don't do drama either, so if someone in my SoMe streams are causing trouble all the time, I have been getting a lot better at dropping them immediately. A few I've removed for writing what I considered to be insensitive posts, mostly the ones that stemmed from the Dark Knight shootings.

    I'm glad Candace shared this one today because as with her, it has helped me realize that I am not wrong for questioning the way I am feeling about my online interactions.

    PS - I wouldn't have added the blocker back either! :D


  11. This will stay with me for a long time. I am so early in the game and I look to folks I admire (you, you, you) to help me navigate. I have a lot to learn, but already see how online relationships can blur our idea of "who" we are and what our "value" is....and that is daunting. I am flitting around the edges while I slowly sort it out (if ever). In the meantime, I'm holding on tight to those who inspire....can you feel my choke hold? xo

  12. I don't have anything to add that the others above haven't said, other than to say that I get it. I feel the same way, often, and I'm glad you wrote this.

    Also, glad to know you IRL, and often wish you didn't live across the country. :)

  13. This is a great post, Karen. I think we've all been there at some point in time with some person or another.

    As for: "So why is this person still sending me messages on Facebook? Why is this person still tweeting me?"

    I can't say for sure, because I don't know who that person is or what their motives might be, but for me, in one instance in my past, the answer would have been: OLIVE BRANCH.

    I knew things couldn't be unsaid on either side and couldn't really be completely fixed, but I thought maybe they could return to civil. Those olive branches eventually snapped from being left swaying in the wind too long though. Oh well.

  14. Thank you for writing this. I recently had a real life friendship become fractured (beyond repair, I believe) but yet I still cling to our online "friendship". I think you have convinced me that it's time to remove this person from my online life as well.

  15. I took away a lot from this post. I think I'll be mulling it over all day. And I agree, the lines get confusing in online/social media relationships. Thank you, Karen :)

  16. I came here via tweet from someone I follow. This is a good post; I like it when people calmly examine out loud things that perplex or bother them.

    The thing that's hard about social media is that first word, 'social'. Everyone is equipped differently for social interaction, and everyone has their own views of the value (and personal rules) of various platforms.

    I view Twitter as a big cocktail party. We are all sharing all the time, and at varying levels of intimacy depending on who we're interacting with. I can only participate in so many conversations at once, though, and I can only be fully vested in x amount of people (I choose quality of relationship over quantity of follows). That said, I wouldn't intentionally ignore someone who attempted to make polite conversation with me in facespace, so I endeavor not to do so on Twitter. To me that makes no sense. Like you, I have to control my intake of mean and bitter and negative, or it really harshes me. So I unfollow people that are perpetually gross to others or complain incessantly, etc.

    I also am not down with passive-aggressive, and have had to unfollow someone based on their inability to sort out issues between us in an adult manner. This was not because I held any bitterness toward them, but because it hurt me that the playful interaction I saw with others no longer existed between us.

    Facebook is a gated community. The gates are there for a reason. I don't parade everybody up into my front yard because not everyone belongs there. Recently I had someone who followed me and unfollowed me on Twitter TWICE and then requested me on FB. What?? Why would they do this? If they don't like me in 140 characters, then they sure as hell aren't going to like what I do with paragraphs.

    I think more of us should talk about what we think the role of various social media channels are (and should be?) in our lives. I'd find that discussion interesting.

  17. "I removed this person from my Facebook profile, because, in my order of things, if you do not want me on Twitter, the most impersonal, most inclusive of social media, than I certainly do not want you on Facebook, where you are privy to my more personal interactions."

    That's how I work, too. Much as I hate to admit it hurts me enough to be so petty, this is exactly it: if you no longer want to interact with me in one forum, I don't want to see you interacting with everyone BUT me.

    Great post.

  18. I use/view twitter, facebook, and linkedin pretty much the way you described them. If someone had blocked me on twitter (and blocking is so much more extreme than just unfollowing), I wouldn't have kept them on facebook either.

  19. I use twitter very differently from you. I have two accounts - one public and one private. On my private account I speak about things that I don't speak about anywhere else online. When I culled my already small list, it was in view of that privacy. My fb is less private and exclusively for ppl I know IRL, which is why I had no interest in unfriending you on facebook. I'm sorry about the timing of it all... there was similar timing involved on my end of things. Take care.

  20. Wow, such a great post, Karen. Thanks for the read. You've given me (as always) a lot to think about.


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