That’s What De-Friends Are For

My virtual friends.

How do you de-friend someone who was never really your friend to begin with?  That was the dilemma this week when I was called a stupid, ill-informed moron by someone I’ve never met.  But irony of ironies, this person is publicly billed as my friend for all the world to see and knows at least 57 of almost 500 other people who know me.

Of course, I’m talking about Facebook .  One of my oldest friends looked me in the face and said “friend to the friendless” several decades ago as she observed the unusually large number of good, real-life friends in my life.  What can I say – I like people?  I’m a people pleaser?  I don’t like to be alone?  I need approval, an audience or a way to focus on others rather than my own needs?  Or maybe, well – I’m just a really nice guy who likes being around different kinds of people that I really like. Of course, in the same vein I can also really hate being around an awful lot of awful people that I really don’t like.  So there is that.

(One of the perks of getting older, by the way, is that you don’t have the patience for the latter and, as you age, there is even less expectation for you to tolerate nimrods than there is when you’re in your twenties and thirties.  So – that’s one good thing about the disintegration of the body to look forward to – that is aside from Social Security and Medicare while it lasts).

Which brings me back to the subject of de-friending. (Think about it, as you ponder why corporations aren’t people).  As I found out this week, it’s a lot easier to de-friend someone virtually (just a couple of clicks on your mouse) than it is when you’re operating in any sort of physical reality.

When you truly have a REAL friend you’re done with there is often the inevitable unpleasant conversation/fight or the ignoring/freezing out of another human being that at some point is likely to unearth a gnawing kind of guilt in your soul (assuming you have one and that souls indeed exist) that will likely do some sort of damage to you in some other area of life (e.g. karma or retribution).  Live human feelings, good or bad, are like that.  They can make you feel things.  But in turn, your real life and real life friends, if they are truly such, have a way touching you (again good or bad) in places you had never dreamt possible.  That’s what makes, through the ages, the in-person, old-fashioned version of friends and friendships both so agelessly cool, difficult and impossible to quantify or categorize.  It’s a sort of a long-term love affair without the sex (well, most of the time) but with many of the same perks, benefits, shorthands and, yes, responsibilities.  Who needs it, you might say?  Well, as Woody Allen once brilliantly observed of himself (and us) in relationships – “I (we) need the eggs” and I concur.

I’d also stretch that observation to include not only flesh and blood love affairs but also flesh and blood real-life friends.


A lot of us now spend as much or even more time in the virtual world where the connections, feelings and costs are not the same as they are in real time/life.  Or are they?  Well, let’s say they’re different.  The fact that I’m even writing about an online de-friending  event would seem evidence enough to make the case that “de-friending” even a virtual pal means something emotionally, though perhaps nowhere near as much as it would if any of us actually knew that person we’re consistently hanging out with via our social media page.

This distance is perhaps one of the key benefits of online life because a virtual way of living lets you say and do things you might never consider in the flesh (or even in the same room, city or neighborhood).  For a writer, or anyone who fancies themselves a bit clever with words, there is something addictingly delectable about this, about all things online, web-based, immersive or virtual.  I know it’s cool to be down on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and, and, and… but you won’t hear any of that from me.  I thoroughly enjoy being able to spout my opinions (surprise!) on any subject I choose, connect with people who a decade ago I’d have surely lost touch with, and spy on and share any number of photos, articles and clips of pop culture that I or you would have missed in the simpler decades before most of my college aged students were even born.

My personal fall out (and perhaps yours) from all of this is that it’s emboldened me (us?) to a consistently much bigger and more diverse audience of followers, nee friends, than even before.  So, for instance, when I, a devout liberal, post my concern that the Republican party is about to nominate someone who exhibits severe sociopathic behavior, it’s not just me speaking up and arguing at a dinner party.  For one thing, at a dinner party you don’t get to play, as evidence, a clip of a lesbian mother relating that when she asked then Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney about what to tell her daughter when her daughter asks why one of her “Moms” can’t visit the other at the hospital, he icily replied “I don’t really care what you tell your daughter.  But I suppose you can tell her whatever you already tell her.”

In addition, you also don’t have your significant other, or best friend, kicking you in the shin or under the table before you start that particular argument or play that clip.

Not that it would have made a difference in my case, trust me.  Because, truth be told, I like a good argument and believe one of the biggest problems about contemporary life is that there are not enough of them.  HUH????  Yeah, there are not enough GOOD arguments nowadays.  Meaning it’s important that people challenge each other’s opinions with evidence, discourse, facts and even real and dangerously personal emotions.  How else can we better understand opposing views and move forward even just a little bit, if we don’t?  I look for these kinds of exchanges in the classroom all the time but they happen all too infrequently.  I look for them at family gatherings but usually no one wants to hurt each other’s feelings and they stay silent.  I look for them in journalism – print, TV and radio – but mostly people seem to be shouting or speechifying each other with planned talking points on both sides rather than engaging in any kind of meaningful way.

My Facebook rating of public discourse

Enter the Internet – a sort of a wild west existence where every so often you can really get a raw exchange of views among “friends” that you might not ever get in real life.  It’s crazy, to be sure, but it’s also pretty uncensored and true when it’s working right.  That’s one reason why I enjoy posting about political issues and welcome reading posts from others who are trying to share something they’ve thought and read about regarding the issues of the day.  I mean, if we’re not going to get enough of an exchange going in real life, perhaps we can at least begin virtually, where we can seethe and breathe fire and curse out our opposition within the confines or our own little megabytes.  To put it another way – some reaction is better than no reaction.  Isn’t it?

The upshot, of course, is being ranted at and being called a stupid idiot by those who oppose you – people you might have thought twice of engaging or who might have thought three times of engaging you face-to-face due to some mental defect on either one of your parts.  In the case of my “former friend,” let’s just say in the last year or so I’ve heard him rant and rave in half-crazed ways on the pages of many other mutual friends.  I chalked it up to his passion and general manner and the fact that he seemed so much more shrill to me because I so disagreed with pretty much everything he had to say.  And given that, I was determined NOT to de-friend (un-friend?) him.

But I learned this week, as my former friend’s words got very personal, nasty and more than a little troubling, virtual friendships can signal some of the same warning bells that we encounter in real life ones.  Just like you don’t stay with an abusive, insulting mate, friend or even boss. — the same applies to any kind of online engagement.


I tell my students all the time –  there is NO JOB in show business (or any other business, for that matter) worth staying at where one needs to be consistently insulted and abused.

Well, the same goes for public discourse.  No one EVER gets to call you stupid, or a moron, or even worse in the course of your day.  No matter how controversial they might see your viewpoint.  Online, as in real life, certain rules apply.  Even  Especially for friends.   And if they can’t play by those simple human rules, they are no real or virtual friend of yours at all.

5 thoughts on “That’s What De-Friends Are For

  1. OK Friend to the Friendless means you are the one to spot and seek out the person in the room who needs a friend and be that friend. It is a wonderful quality, one of the many I love about you!

  2. A couple thoughts on de-friending:

    it is true, without question that some people use the virtuality of the internet to allow them to make comments that are very rude, The virtuality allows a level of rudeness you almost never see in the physical world where you might get punched in the nose for a deeply rude or thoughtless comment. Possibly, this freedom of speech in virtuality is eroding civility in the real world but that’s hard to estimate.

    People set various standards or rules for their sets of friends on social networks. Some people, especially people with a public persona have 5,000+ friends. Other people have less than 20 friends, either because they want their privacy or they just don’t find much value in online social networks. I personally have set a rule to limit my Facebook friends to no more than 128. I based this on Dunbar’s number, Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s idea that “the maximum number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained is about 150.” He got that from studying tribes, brain size, etc. But it makes sense. If you have more friends than that on Facebook, you can’t really know who they are. So to be one of my 128 Facebook friends you have to pass this one or more of this gauntlet of rules.

    1. I have known you for years, traveled with you, and socialized with you.


    2. I have had a meaningful telephone conversation or online exchange with you in the last year.


    3. I have met you at an art event, workshop, gallery or museum and I like your artwork


    4. We share the same hobby or interest.


    5. I worked with you on some job in the past.

    Periodically, I have to “prune” my Facebook friends to less than 128 and in the process people get “ejected” from the friends list. Most often people get ejected for #2 above. If I haven’t had any interaction with someone in a year, how can they possibly be a friend. Most of the people on my list are aware of my crazy 128 rule and occasionally the ejected ask to be relisted. What was a common request when I asked “why?” Ex-friends said — more or less — “My life is boring I want in on yours.” Now actually, my life is pretty damn routine so that’s hard to imagine. But also it did give me the creepy feeling realization that some people are so bored that Facebook provides a very low-level voyeurism. Is that really the primary appeal of Facebook? Maybe.

    I am curious what other sorting rules people use to maintain friendships.

    • Well, I am honored to be among the 128, if indeed I am, which I’m assuming I am because you see my posts 🙂 My only rule of thumb re Facebook friends is that I will not friend someone I dont really want to be in contact with. However, I’ve found it hard to deny a friend request unless I know that person is crazy; don’t know them at all or even through anyone; or find them in some way dangerous or offensive. Otherwise, it’s pretty fair game. But part of that is I use Facebook to post my blog and other things for our students. Which is one of the benefits of social media – you have an automatic audience.

      Are they “friendships?” Well, not in the sense that we’re all used to. But then again, they sort of up the ante on acquaintances or associates – depending on what you use Facebook and other social media sites for. I find that for people who post somewhat regularly, you do learn a bit more about people who are not in your very inner circle and can also stay current with them.

      The downside is – the emboldened atmosphere just waiting for crazy, ranting, offensive, etc. behavior. But every relationship has risks, right?

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