February 10, 2012 10:06 pm

Facebook friends: the art of deletion

If you do decide on some spring cleaning, you need consistent rules to help you justify the decision if challenged
illustration of unfriending somebody at facebook

It’s not you; it’s me,” I muttered as I hit the return key and terminated yet another Facebook friendship. There was a flicker of regret but then again we hadn’t actually spoken for 30 years. I carried on: “Listen, we just don’t talk any more,” zap. And – in one case – “we’ve never actually met’’, zap.

It was entirely my own fault it had come to this. In the first heady rush of my Facebook years I, like so many others, had accepted and issued too many friend requests to too many casual acquaintances. People I once worked with; blokes I remembered from school; someone I once met on a trip somewhere; a press officer I talked to on the phone a few times. It must cut both ways; presumably there were people who thought I’d be interesting, because of my job, and now have to put up with snapshots of family outings to Bristol. But now with Zuckerberg and co introducing ever more settings to force more of our lives into the open I’d become increasingly uncomfortable with the open house policies of my early days.

There are plenty of people who don’t mind sharing their private life with all comers; for them Facebook is the reality TV show where you don’t have to wait for an invite. But for the more restrained, the choice is to do less on Facebook or restrict access. But how do you cut back on the friends list without upsetting people? This surely demands one of those guides to online etiquette. You know the kind of thing: “A gentleman should always offer the lady the chance to unfriend him first.” Some users ask you to tick a box if you want to remain on their friends list. This, while polite, is risky. You may find out that people you thought were good friends have tired of the pictures of your children eating pancakes, while those you want to lose seem keen to remain. Worse still, what if no one responds?

Far better to take the initiative. But how? People take offence at being unfriended – well you would, wouldn’t you? It’s not that they care that they’ll no longer know you’ve just checked into Starbucks in Canning Town. It’s not even that they care that you don’t really think of them as a close friend – they almost certainly feel the same about you; it’s just that you did something about it. The very concept of “unfriending” makes it seem more momentous, like a Solomonic judgment. This perhaps was Facebook’s greatest insight – that even over a computer it is hard to tell someone they aren’t your friend.

It isn’t actually something that happens in the adult world. We don’t wander into a colleague’s office and say “you’re not my friend any more”. We just let things slide. Or we did till Facebook arrived and we stupidly went and reconnected with everyone we’d spent the past decade forgetting. Now, thanks to “frictionless sharing”, I know that a bloke I went to school with read an article in The Guardian. In the Facebook ethos, I would read the article and start discussing it with him. But that’s time I could spend doing something. Facebook’s mission seems to be to lure us away from the real world and turn us into avatars in its own ecosystem in our own giant game of Second Life.

But if you do decide on some spring cleaning, you need some consistent rules to help you justify the decision, if challenged. For example, you’ve restricted it to family and close friends; or cut loose anyone you haven’t seen for three years; people abroad who you wouldn’t bother contacting if you were in town; people who aren’t interested in your family photos.

Of course Facebook won’t make this easy. You’ll have to confirm it several times, as if you were consenting to live-organ donation. The messages come thick and fast. “Are you sure you want to do this? Clicking this button will remove this person from your friends list. Remember all the good times you had together? Do you think they won’t notice? What kind of bastard are you?” Be strong; you can do this.

Once you are done, why not complete the last part of the exercise. Go through the remaining list looking for good friends you haven’t seen for a while, then call them up and invite them to lunch. That’s what friends do.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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