The Lonely Island
At the time of writing, I have 87 friends on Facebook. That’s too many. Facebook is different from Twitter in that you’re encouraged (and it makes sense) to befriend only those people whom you’re actually friends with. It’s in the name of the action, really: “follow” vs. “friend”1. Are there really 87 people that’d I’d consider friends? Are there really 87 people that I care enough about to want to know how they spent their Friday night? Doubtful. I’m not antisocial, I’m realistic. While every individual’s optimal “friend” count will vary, it’s unlikely you have as many close relationships as your Facebook page would indicate.
I’m not saying you have to speak with your Facebook friends every day. Not even every month. It is essential, however, that have some minimum level of closeness with them2. Otherwise, the service is all-but useless. If every time you login to Facebook, there’s a hundred new items in your newsfeed, you aren’t going to read all of that. Even if I was friends with the most interesting people in the universe, I wouldn’t read all of that. By opening our definition of and exaggerating the list of people we call “friend”, we are rendering the Facebook service useless to ourselves. What was meant to be a service to help us connect with friends when not together morphs into an irritating stream of crap we don’t care about.
The First Step is Acceptance
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, I’m prey to “friending” non-friends as well. Why do we do it? Why do we accept every friend request that comes our way, and why do we obsessively page through Facebook’s suggestions looking for new friends? Is it a status item, to proclaim how many friends you have on Facebook as if you deserve a medal? I think so. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard kids brag about the number of “friends” they have. OK. So an artificially-high number makes us feel better about ourselves.
My stepmother has nearly 1,400 “friends” on Facebook. No, really. Right now you’re thinking she’s super cool, right? I’m sure she knows all of those people. I’m sure she wants to know what every one of those 1,389 people had for dinner. I’m sure she’d be happy to have each of those people over for dinner tomorrow night. Just sure of it. Now that artificially-high number makes us question her3. But she’s so popular! She has lots of friends, she must be so friendly. I want to be just like her. That’s what we’re all thinking, right? No? Oh, then let’s keep reading.
“But I would never brag about that,” we say. “Other people, though, they do and if they see I only have sixty friends they’ll think less of us.” Fair point. Well, not really. Who gives a shit? If we prescribe to that, than we’re no better than the “other people”. Look, anyone lowly enough to troll Facebook seeking people with low “friend” counts to build themselves up does not deserve your attention. You’re a above that. You’re a “go-getter”, or some other inspirational shit. You’re outside climbing mountains while that guy’s inside checking his AOL account for Target coupons. You don’t need to be ashamed of your number, you should be proud. A low number is a symbol of a healthy human being, I swear to it.
If we’ve accepted that Facebook is for our actual, honest-to-god, “IRL” friends, we’ve accepted an enormous “friend” count doesn’t reflect anything good, and we’ve accepted that you don’t care what “they” think. What are we to do about it?
We’re going to purge.
Remember that “minimum” I was telling you about? The threshold of closeness for which we should feel toward someone in order to establish a connection on Facebook? While you’re certainly free to decide that for yourself, I’ve devised a simple (if difficult and lengthy to explain) test we can do quickly in our heads as we scroll through our “friends” list, trigger fingers poised over the “unfriend” button.
OK, let’s get started. You’re laying on the couch (do people really do that?), I’m sitting in the expensive leather chair. Don’t worry, this session won’t cost you too much. I’ll need you to picture yourself on a deserted island. Deserted, but you are not alone. Imagine you were en route to some exotic locale, perhaps on a top-secret mission for M, and your plane has gone down. Every one has survived (let’s not get too dark) but you are all very much alone and fear that rescue could take weeks. It was a standard airline flight, though, so the passengers and crew are a bunch of random people you’ve never met before4. Random, all except for one. You had no idea they were on the flight, but that one person is (stepping back to reality now) the person you’re considering for approval for or dismissal from your friends list.
Here’s the test: do you approach that person? Is he/she the first person you rush to help? There are a hundred and fifty people on that island, and you aren’t going to be bonding with all of them. Are you and that person going to help each other to survive? If the answer is to all of the above yes, that person stays on your list. If the answer is no, they’re gone.
The Locust Swarm
This test, I understand, sounds ridiculous. It’s an absurd situation that (hopefully) we’ll never find ourselves in. But it is useful, I think, and a pretty accurate way to determine if our potential candidate is worthy. The question is: is our relationship with the candidate close enough that we’d band together in a sea of strangers? With some, the decision is easy. Our best friends, our boy- or girlfriends: no-brainers. Our sisters, our brothers, our moms and dads: easy-peasy. There are no-brainers on both sides of the test, of course. I probably wouldn’t need to run my stepmother through the test if she ever sent me a request.
For the cases right in the middle, though, that’s where this test is useful. That guy from your chemistry class junior year, the one who sat in front of you for half the year and without fail asked you to borrow a pencil every single day? He probably won’t make the list. The girl who had to sit behind him for the other half of the year, the one you exchanged sympathies with at the lunch table? She probably makes it. The test is effective in weeding out people who irritate us, but isn’t so exclusive that amicable people we’ve acquainted with and enjoy the company of get cut.
As you descend your friends list, if you’re like I was the first time and you have a lot of “friends”, you’ll be cutting out a lot. The first couple are hard, but it gets easier. The people we’re cutting are people who won’t notice they’ve been defriended, and if they do notice, they won’t care. If we extrapolate, they’re really being done a favor. If they do not belong on our list, we don’t belong on theirs.
It’s worth mentioning this the test isn’t strictly for purging. We should use it whenever a new friend request comes in, and we should be sparring with your sending of requests. I, for instance, don’t send any. That’s pretentious of me, I realize, but I can live with it. As I said at the start, I have too many friends on Facebook. I’ve used the test before5 and I’ll do it again. I’ll be the first to admit it’s easy to let a few less-than-stellar candidates slip through the net, but it’s just as easy to boot them.
Keeping your internet life in order can be time-consuming, but keeping it in order is one less stressor that you’ll have to deal with. Find a strategy. Follow it. Rinse. Repeat.
While Facebook did institute “following” as an alternative to “friending” awhile ago, you’d be forgiven for not knowing about it until now. ↩︎
We’ll talk about defining that minimum is a bit later. ↩︎
Don’t, really. ↩︎
Some of them probably “friends” of my stepmother. ↩︎