Adam Hartley
29/10/2010 10:33 | By Adam Hartley, columnist, MSN Tech & Gadgets

How to lose friends on Facebook

Why is it that deleting even the most casual of acquaintances from our Facebook accounts feels so wrong?

When you cull your online social networks of spammy stragglers, do you execute the operation swiftly, showing no mercy? Perhaps you're like some kind of imaginary Dirty Harry in the grip of a 'take no prisoners' friend-harvest, growling through gritted teeth, "sorry punk, this is it."

Alternatively, do you fret about which of your outer circle of so-called friends, colleagues and family members you might somehow offend by deleting, despite the fact you find them boring, offensive or annoyingly troll-like?

How easy do you find it to de-friend on Facebook? (© Microsoft)

As in life, there are two archetypal personality types on Facebook - what Norman Mailer referred to as 'Cannibals and Christians' back in the swinging 60s. Or, to labour my slightly weird Dirty Harry fantasy, there are those that cull and those that get culled.

Sometimes you just have to ask yourself. Which kind of Facebook de-friender are you? (Punk).

Cull or be culled
I recently asked a bunch of people about the 'netiquette' of friend-culling, eliciting a range of surprisingly extreme and vehement reactions.

"I de-friend anyone who mentions X Factor or their iPhone software updates," one grumpy old mate told me. "No excuses for that."

Hmmm. Now this seems a bit hard-line. Personally, while I don't care too much for 'Simon Cowell's Opportunity Knocks' I am not going to abandon long-term friends and family because they enjoy watching fun Saturday night telly.

This would leave me bereft and stuck forevermore amongst sullen man-children moaning about the negative impact of celebrity culture ad nauseum. Like being trapped at a lifeforce-sapping hipster party in a trustafarian Shoreditch loft. But on the internet.

With that frighteningly dystopian vision in mind, how might we learn to de-friend a little more prudently?

"Like any other act of human social behaviour, the significance of 'de-friending' depends not on the fact that it's Facebook, but on its meaning to the participants," argues psychologist Joanna Bawa.

"It can be as unremarkable as clearing out your old shoe cupboard or as serious and, potentially, more devastating than suing for divorce - by actually dumping your real-life partner in a public forum online."

Bawa's advice? Learn to de-friend and accept and issue friend requests with extreme caution.

For its part, Facebook doesn't want us to cull contacts from our networks, for two reasons. Firstly, the growth of the entire network depends on everybody connecting with as many others as they possibly can.

Secondly, if you are making the decision to de-friend and remove people you have either hit your acceptable friend limit, or there is something about the experience that is annoying you. Which means you might (heaven forbid!) choose to spend less time on Facebook and more time IRL ('in real life' - pat yourself on the back if you didn't know that!).

This is why the company is constantly developing new ways of letting you filter out those tedious news updates from the spammers and bores in your network. It is also the reason why Facebook introduced its new groups feature recently, so you need no longer share all the same stuff with your family, work and various friend networks.

Friends and enemies
"Facebook also recently introduced a 'not now' feature on friend requests in addition to 'accept' and 'decline' meaning you don't have to actively decline someone if you don't want to," a company spokesperson told me when I asked them how they were dealing with de-friending.

At some point, if you spend a lot of time on Facebook, you will eventually feel the urge to cut somebody out of the picture. If you don't know that person and feel confident that you are never likely to meet them in a social situation then you won't feel those bothersome pangs of guilt when you delete them.

The problem arises when you vaguely know them. Even though they bore or offend you, you feel a nagging need to maintain some form of relationship. Considering the netiquette of de-friending on Facebook can be a minefield, as William Hanson, one of the UK's leading experts on etiquette and protocol, told me.

"A lot of us will have friends on Facebook that aren't actually our real friends, they are just acquaintances or, in some cases, even enemies," explained Hanson.

"If you are going to de-friend someone, take time to think about the consequences of your action: are you going to see this person in real life? Are they going to feel hurt if they find out you have de-friended them? The whole point of manners is to put people at ease and to respect the views of others. Thus, if de-friending someone is going to cause upset then I would probably advise leaving that person as a friend."

Play it safe
Psychologist Rebecca McGuire-Sniekus explained a little further about how this upset works on those that have been cast out of your network, stressing that the ease with which you can remove someone from your contacts should not belie the potential complications that might follow.

"Being socially snubbed evokes the same response in the brain as physical pain," says McGuire-Sniekus. "Rejection hurts. Moreover, the impact of rejection on self-esteem can linger. Some consider self-esteem to be a type of social monitor - sensitivity to cues that reflect our value to others. A blatant rejection, such as de-friending, is likely to be a mighty blow to the self-esteem of the one removed. "

The bottom-line is this. If you don't really know somebody and they are boring or bothering you, they probably won't even notice if you cut them loose. For closer friends, you need to look closely at the reasons why you want to de-friend them first.

And, if you can't resolve your differences, then at least they will know what was coming.

[Adam Hartley is the social media columnist for MSN Tech & Gadgets. He is employed on a freelance basis by Microsoft. The views in this column are those of the author and not of MSN or Microsoft.]

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