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The Cruel Art Of Unfriending

Virtual or real?
Virtual or real?
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA — It used to be that friendships ended in all sorts of ways. But these days, we simply "unfriend" instead.

From the playground to Facebook, the process has evolved. You put the cursor on the name of the person you want out of your life, you slide over to the "Friends" button, let the menu roll out until the final option at the bottom. You go down, both literarily and figuratively, immersed in your own feelings: anger, relief, determination.

And then you stop at the "Unfriend" option. Tension. You click. Bam.

It is a discreet operation, as the person does not get a notification for having been unfriended. The impact can only be measured later, when the ex-friend finds out by accident that he or she has fallen into disfavor.

Some people talk about being on the receiving end of this as a "trauma." This holds even when we don't care about the person who deleted us. We are harmed regardless of whether the origin of the feeling is virtual or real.

The art of "unfriending," which the New Oxford American Dictionary elected word of the year in 2009, is a new phenomenon. The dissolution of a friendship used to happen much more organically.

But before going too deep, we should ask whether the act of "unfriending" on Facebook is the same as ending a relationship in real life? Or is it completely different?

Christopher Sibona, a professor of computer science and information systems at the University of Colorado, Denver, started studying this issue four years ago and published three scholarly studies on the topic. His two central conclusions:

a) Most of the time, the people we unfriend are old classmates from secondary school, or friends’ friends and colleagues.

b) We tend to unfriend old classmates because they post controversial political or religious messages. On the other hand, we unfriend colleagues for actions that took place in real life.

"In real life, friendships slip away and disappear by themselves," Sibona says. "But on Facebook, they are broken with a clear sign and action."

A poll among unfriends

Though it is easily done, unfriending is a radical gesture. "The cost of maintaining a friendship online is very cheap: You don’t need to do much," Sibona says. "You can even hide your profile to one friend by adjusting the privacy settings."

What causes people to take this step We decided to launch the question on our own Facebook page, looking for concrete examples. Two people unfriended us right away: "This way, you'll be able to tell from your own experience," says one.

Some people, however, tell their story. Politics is indeed at the top of the list. "I once deleted an acquaintance from my friend list because of our incompatibility of opinions about the quenellesa gesture invented by the controversial French humorist Dieudonné that resembles a Nazi salute," says Florian.

Roberto, who had a family member killed in Venezuala, says he reacted "emotionally" when he deleted someone who praised Hugo Chavez.

Giada tells us how someone unfriended her after a clash about the idea of friendship. In her 40s, Giada was completely shocked by what she considers a childlish reaction of her friend to delete her. "I found this action excessive because no confrontation was possible," she said. "I was shaken up, going from disappointment, anger, desire to react and finally just accepting it. But for a month, I really needed to talk about it."

Another reader noted that she unfriended the wife of a friend after the couple split up. "Historically, I was a closer friend with him. It was impossible to be part of the same circle, even a virtual one."

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