Sorry, Friends: The Mass Facebook Unfriending Spree Is a Terrible Idea
Facebook unfriending is once again trending.
Recently, my Yahoo Tech colleague Alyssa Bereznak reported on Duster, an app designed to help Facebook users weed out superfluous “friends.” Since then, some clever writers have piped up to declare their own endorsements of mass-unfriending, and how to do it: First Dan Kois of Slate described a systematic “Facebook cleanse” system that involves determining whether any given friend is worthy of a “Happy birthday!” Then Casey Neistat of Gizmodo offered an entertaining rant about “the unfriend button” as “my path to making Facebook an enjoyable experience once again.”
All very amusing, but frankly wrongheaded. For most of us, an unfriending binge is a terrible idea. I say this as someone who went on his own unfriending rampage a few years back and regretted it.
There are three reasons to resist the mass unfriending: First, because you risk coming across like a rude jerk to someone you could cross paths with again. Second, because you lose a form of access to someone who might turn out to be useful in the future.
And third, because even if you’ve been careless about your Facebook friending in a way that’s flooding your News Feed with stuff you don’t care about, the Unfriend is a totally unnecessary step. There is a much smarter, and very easy, strategy for managing your friendflow.
What Facebook is (and was)
It’s hard for me to believe this is true, but back in 2007 or so, I actually found Facebook sort of fun. It was a novelty, and it was genuinely interesting to reconnect with acquaintances from the past. I was happy to accept friend requests from basically anybody.
When I hit 500 friends a year or two later, though, I started to get queasy. Like Kois, I realized I’d overdone it: I just didn’t care about a lot of these people. And like Neistat, I was increasingly irritated by my News Feed.
So I set a goal of paring my friends back to 150 people — a common figure for Dunbar’s number, “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships,” as Wikipedia neatly puts it.
I never achieved that goal, but I did waste the better part of a weekend unfriending something like 250 people. I’ll spare you the details of my criteria — not least because I wince just thinking about it.
At the time, for instance, I’d recently accepted a friend request from a journalistic peer whose work I really like — but I didn’t really know her, we’d never met in real life, and I had no particular desire to pursue a deeper friendship. She was not Dunbar’s number material, so she had to go!
My mistake: Facebook has nothing to do with Dunbar’s number, nor with whom I want to wish a happy birthday. The “friend”ships I snuffed were, in fact, just social signals. I have no idea if this fellow writer noticed, but if so I would guess her sole impression of me went from something like “seems like a nice guy” to “that jerk who unfriended me for no reason.”
Some of the 250 people I weeded out really were total strangers. But plenty were, while vague acquaintances, perfectly interesting people with whom I could easily cross paths, and/or who might have been useful to know in the future, and who in any event were doing me no harm.
Too bad I didn’t realize there was a much better solution at hand.