You’ve probably experienced it. That moment when you realize that your friend’s Facebook profile is no longer visible. You are confused for a moment, and then it hits you: They unfriended you.
After that, more confusion. You think back about your recent interactions with him or her, looking for clues, indications. Then there’s a little sadness, then sheer indignation. You didn’t really care for them either. Good riddance.
Friends used to drift in and out of life, like the wind or a song or a season. You could quite pinpoint when the friendship started. Maybe you hit it off. Or maybe it didn’t really turn into friendship for a year, maybe two. You’d met a couple times, but it wasn’t until you ran into them at the bookstore that you actually stopped, talked, and found you could be friends.
When exactly friendship started, we used to not really know.
Now we do.
Having Facebook has made us think about what our friendship policies are, and also why we choose not to be friends with people. Before Facebook, we simply became friends; we haphazardly fell into them. There was some passivity to it. Now, we actively control it. We friend people. It’s full of doing. Friend is no longer a passive noun; it’s an active verb. Friending is something we do. Being a friend is out—friending is in. Goodbye noun. Hello verb.
Where once people drifted in and out of your life, Facebook now draws clear lines, in or out, either/or. In the act of friending someone, we don’t simply lump everyone into a single “friend” category. No, we actually have two categories: “friend” and “not friend.” In other words, Facebook adds new meaning to what it means to be friends.
However, Facebook has done more than transform friendship into an active pursuit—into an activity. It has also given new meaning to those we choose not to friend.
You can learn a lot about me from looking at who I am friends with on Facebook, but there is an invisible list of people I’m not friends. And that list could tell you just as much. Some of those people I never friended. Some I have yet to friend. And some I have unfriended.*
Just like having a policy for who I will friend, we also have reasons for unfriending someone—or not friending them in the first place. Some of my most significant relationships do not exist as far as Facebook is concerned. I realized this after remembering a girl I’d dated a long time ago—before Facebook. She and I have numerous mutual friends on Facebook, including family members, but we have never friended each other. It’s highly unlikely that it is a simple oversight. I know, on my part, it’s not.
There is meaning in what’s missing.
The messy relationships are usually the closest ones. I’ve dated enough to know a thing or two about relationships in the Facebook era. After breaking up, “friend” really wasn’t an option. My point is that sometimes what you don’t see on Facebook can be just as significant what you do. It’s the negative space that leaves an impression.
Before Facebook, friendship meant something. After Facebook, not being friends means something too. Not being friends is more than the click of a button; it is now a conscious decision about the present and the future of that relationship: “unfriend.” There’s meaning in that. A meaning that wasn’t there before Facebook.
*Facebook actually does keep a list of the ones you’ve unfriended. You can see the list if you download your Facebook Data.