I would say that there are two kinds of reasons to un-friend someone on Facebook. The first is the slow-burner: a friend has been posting increasingly annoying memes, making constant supposedly enigmatic references to an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, and the sheer volume of their statuses has becomes too much to bear. With a sigh, as if accepting the inevitable, we delete them as a friend. The second is the in-a-fit-of-temper un-friending. Filled with rage on breaking up with someone, or finding out exactly which ‘friend’ has been stealing our milk from the communal kitchen, we delete them swiftly and without mercy. Both kinds of unfriending are an exercise of power. With a click of a button, we can change our social circle.
Fortunately, Cambridge academics have put an end to my speculation by recently publishing a study attempting to establish more scientifically why Facebook friendships break down. They found some interesting figures in relation to age and gender. For instance, the bigger the age gap between two friends, the more likely their online relationship is to break down. In addition the researchers said: “We also found that a relationship with a common female friend is more robust than that with a common male friend.” A more general finding was that if two people are not in the same social circle, they are more likely to stop being friends on Facebook. Does any of this sound familiar? Because according to the academics: “All this goes to suggest that there is not much difference between offline and online worlds.” While deleting someone may provide a more satisfying termination of a friendship than, say, just not seeing that person very much anymore, it seems both are the result of similar factors. This is an encouraging study for those of us who do not want to believe the scaremongers when they tell us that Facebook is ruining the way we interact socially. However, for those of us who want to believe that our latest friend-deleting frenzy demonstrated us to be an all-powerful master of the Facebook universe immune to puny social forces; I have to say it is a bit of a disappointment. We are no more in control of our friendships than we have been in the past. The only difference is that now deleting someone as a friend is an official process.
However, there are upsides to this new way of managing the same old tricky business of friendship. For people like me who have an absolute horror of awkward social situations (I’m the sort of person who panics at the front of the queue in a coffee shop and just orders a hot chocolate because I can’t remember the exact wording of the frothy, tall, dark cinnamon-y, mocha-latte-cinno thing I really want) it makes the transition from friend to non-friend so much less stressful. Simply unfriend the undesirable, then avoid them in public places without feeling rude because, after all, you have given them an indication that your friendship has reached The End. It’s not your fault if they don’t notice, but you secretly know they probably won’t, and you can jettison them without saying “actually you’re quite annoying” or “I couldn’t have a cup of tea this morning you milk-thief”. So, while Facebook makes it even easier for us to annoy each other even more frequently, it also allows us the luxury of rejecting each other in a harsher but sneakier way than we can in real life. That’s progress for you.