Defriending someone on Facebook is the 21st-century way of ending a relationship - but is it the coward's way out?
When a virtual pal got too close for comfort, Dana Rossi blocked him on Facebook. Here, she wonders if the site's easy intimacy can make for bad habits
Wednesday 21 May 2014
"I love you." That was a text I really didn't want. And even though it was followed by a second text that said, "Gah! Sorry Dana! Wrong window!", that first text was ... the worst. Because I knew that that text meant it was time to end my friendship with the sender.
Had I received a misdirected text message from any other friend, it would have been no big deal. But this wasn't any other friend – this was a guy who had been heavily flirting with me for the better part of a year. We messaged constantly when we first met. Sometimes he'd say things like "I adore you" and, because we don't live near each other, "tell me how I can see you again sooner".
He'd remember the most minute details about me – things that I'd said weeks or months earlier. He once asked me if it was a good thing that I have been with my current boyfriend for almost five years. I mean, I can be dense about this stuff, but at a certain point (such as when mutual acquaintances started to ask me if we were sleeping together), I had to stop being so dense. This male friend was into me.
I would end up telling my boyfriend about the latest thing Jon (sure, let's call him Jon) would do, to which my boyfriend would inevitably reply, "Then why do you stay in contact with him?" It was a fair question, and the answer was pretty simple: because I liked the attention.
It's a 10,000-volt charge to get that kind of intense new attention from someone who isn't your boyfriend – especially if you're in a long-term relationship. You don't pursue it, but it's fun to be in the thick of it. So I continued to be his friend... until I received that text.
I knew that Jon had started seeing someone a few months before, so I guessed that "I love you" was meant for her. But it was the actual mechanics of receiving that text – you know as well as I do, iPhone users, that if you want to keep your digital business to yourself, always place your phone face-down. This time I hadn't. And in some comedy-of-errors universe where the sequence of events is fit for the average sitcom plot, it occurred to me that my boyfriend could have seen that first text and assumed all kinds of wrong was going on. We have a stable, loving relationship, and that text could have caused trouble that I'd never want in a million years. There was one relationship worth saving here, and it wasn't the friendship.
In the history of ending friendships, I don't usually go the "we need to talk" route – that always seems as though it's too much drama. So I could have just quietly drifted away from him, but that wasn't enough for me this time. I wasn't about to call him and tell him – from my understanding, no one "calls" on the "telephone" any more. So there was only one thing to do: I had to block him on Facebook.
I had never unfriended anyone on Facebook, so this felt like a semi-dramatic step. We spend so much of our lives on Facebook, sharing everything from cat pictures to discussions about what films pass the Bechdel test – all of which make up the big picture of our lives. (Think you don't waste too much time on Facebook? In January, Time magazine published a calculator to help you determine exactly how much of your life you've wasted on Facebook. For me, it was four months: four months of Buzzfeed quizzes and people freaking out about Game of Thrones spoilers.)
We can't spend so much mundane time on social media without living a good chunk of our emotional lives on it, too. Joy at engagement announcements, little pangs of jealousy when a friend lands a job that you'd love to have, the rally around the friend who's shared news of a death in the family – we'd be foolish to think that we don't carry our real-world emotions over to the digital world. So while blocking someone on Facebook to end a relationship may seem trite or like the coward's way out, it's what lots of us do now.
I typed my friend's name into Facebook's search box. When I clicked his picture, I had the sense that Facebook wasn't entirely on board with this – it skittishly reminded me that by blocking someone, that person will be unfriended AND unable to add me as a friend again.
"Maybe Jon doesn't know he's bothering you," Facebook said. "Would you like to send him a message?"
No, Facebook. Believe me, it's better this way. But it wasn't giving up. "Did you know that you can hide someone's news feed if you don't like what they're writing?"
Oh I know, Miss Nosy Facebook – I'm pretty much the high priestess of hiding news feeds. Still, I took a deep breath and clicked "block". And just like that, "Jon" was gone. His barrage of likes, his comments, his tags – all gone. If we sometimes dream about pulling an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in real life, we kind of can, on Facebook.
What hit me hardest about all this, though, was Facebook's assumption that it was Jon who was bothersome and that I was trying to prevent him from contacting me. That was partly true, but who am I kidding? I hadn't even been hearing from him as much since he started dating someone, so if I simply wanted to stop being his friend, drifting out of his life would have been a piece of cake. But I still felt the need to take this final step.
The truth is hard, but... I did it to stop me. Jon was kind and funny and he'd lasso all the moons of Jupiter if I asked him to. Without setting up a real obstacle that would make it impossible for me to contact him, I might have kept reaching out in search of another mini-hit of attention. I might have thought it was OK to continue doing that with a "friend". But it wasn't OK, and it was never going to be.
So I did the social-media equivalent of putting chilli powder on my fingertips to stop me from biting my nails. And short of Jon looking up my profile and finding himself unable to access it, it's possible that he doesn't even know we're no longer Facebook friends. But then again, I wonder if he knows that we were never quite real "friends" to begin with.
A version of this article appeated on Xojane.com
Facebook's latest big ask
By Kate Wills
Want to know even more about your new Facebook friend than the crude information they could be bothered to fill out when they signed up?
Can't quite work out if someone's relationship status really does fall into the "it's complicated" category when all their pictures show them cuddling up to someone who's clearly not their sister?
Well, fret no more (and don't even think about bothering to call them), as the social network has introduced a new feature called the "ask button" – which allows its users, with a click of a mouse, to badger their Facebook friends into filling in the blanks of the "about" section on their profile.
It could be that this is just another way for us to "share" with our online friends, albeit in the slightly nagging fashion of an aunt who demands to know why you're still single.
But more likely it has something to do with Facebook wanting users to surrender even more personal data to sell on to advertisers.
Maybe someone should "ask" Mark Zuckerberg about that.
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