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Sorry, Friends: The Mass Facebook Unfriending Spree Is a Terrible Idea

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

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.

A better way to ignore people
If your Facebook News Feed is cluttered with stuff you don’t like from people you don’t care about, here’s the easy solution: Make a “Close Friends” list — and only look at that list.

This is easy. The Close Friends list is built into the left-hand column of your Facebook home page. Every friend’s profile has a prominently displayed button that lets you mark people as close friends. You can quickly add or remove people from the Close Friends list page; no one can see whether or not you have marked him as a “close friend.”

My friend count has gradually crept back over 300, but my Close Friends list is about 75 people. Perhaps the other 225 are posting annoying or irrelevant things; I really couldn’t say. The only thing I look at on Facebook is my Close Friends list. Which I enjoy!

Problem solved. No need to waste time and mental energy agonizing over degrees of friendship; no need to offend anybody; no need to be a jerk by unfriending.

And while the list is called “Close Friends,” it doesn’t even have to be that! In my case what it really means is something more like “people who are good at Facebook.” Some really are close friends, but others are acquaintances who regularly post funny, interesting stuff. And yes, there are some real-life close friends who use Facebook solely to self-promote or rant about politics; I ignore them. 

The Close Friends filter, right under the column marked “Friends”

In other words, this strategy efficiently navigates the contradictory ways people use Facebook. I can keep up with people I care about; screen out the people using it to spam all their contacts with political screeds or other annoyances; and maintain positive social vibes, both digital and IRL, all around.

Moreover, there’s an additional benefit of maintaining so-called “loose tie” friendships with people one doesn’t attend to daily: Their Facebook profiles are like cheat-sheet dossiers should some scenario arise that makes you want or need to get in touch. Does he still live in Seattle? What’s her company called again? Are they still married? And so on.  

My ill-advised friend slaughter, and the more recent advice to do the same, both stem from a misunderstanding of what Facebook is, and the misguided idea that there is a single, proper way to use it. In fact, it’s just a tool that could be used to many ends, by many different people.

Once you figure that out, it’s surprisingly easy to manage it as you wish, and get exactly what you want from it — without being a jerk.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalkerRSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.