This is an excerpt from “Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do,” by Kim Stolz. Copyright 2014 © Kim Stolz. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
My mother joined Facebook in 2010. At first I panicked. Several of my friends had felt stalked by their mothers — enough to block them from their profiles — and I feared my mom would monitor my every move and that it would affect our real-life relationship. I also feared my mom would do some walking down memory lane and react, um, negatively to some of the posts or pictures already on my wall. (No, Mom, I don’t smoke, and yes, that is my only tattoo.) Who even knows what kinds of horrible embarrassing posts and unflattering, late-night pictures from two years ago (a bygone era) are there waiting to be discovered by a bored lurker with too much time on her hands to click into the dregs of my Facebook profile? Or — in my paranoid fantasies — waiting to be unearthed by my mother. Thankfully, my mother hasn’t been much of a stalker. She joined Facebook because all of her friends had and she was feeling left out when they talked about their status updates and tagging each other in pictures. But a few weeks after she signed up, she fell victim to one of those diet scam messages, which spammed all 45 of her friends with the message “Wow, my legs look AMAZING! I can already feel the difference! Check out my new diet!” along with the embedded virus link. Most of her friends clicked on it (my mom is in really good shape). She was mortified, but she liked Facebook too much to disable her account. So she asked me to help her with the “ins and outs” of the social network, and of course, I obliged.
When we signed in to her account, I noticed 10 or 15 pending friend requests from people I knew she had met or recently spent time with. I started confirming the requests, when she stopped me abruptly. “What are you doing?! Stop!” she said. This confused me. I hardly ever accepted someone out of the blue but generally confirmed a friendship if a person and I had mutual friends or if we were part of the same network. My mother, however, was more discerning. As we went through her other friend requests, she routinely said, “I barely ever speak to her. Why would I accept her as one of my friends?” Or, “I haven’t seen him in months! I wouldn’t consider him a good friend.” Finally, there was, “Eh, I had dinner with her last week and it was boring. Don’t accept.” My mother and I gauged “friendship” in massively different ways.
Her comments stuck with me the next time I signed in to my own Facebook account. At the time, I had 1,462 friends. Yes — 1,462. If someone had asked me how many real friends I had, I would probably have told them I had 15 good friends (except when I’m scrolling through Instagram and I suddenly feel positive that I have none) and about 40 acquaintances with whom I was friendly. When I stopped to think about it, 1,462 friends seemed kind of embarrassing, so I spent what ended up being four hours of a Saturday afternoon going through every name in my friend list, trying to decipher how many of them I truly considered friends. My guidelines were simple: If I could picture their face when reading their name, I would count them as an acquaintance. If I had spoken to them (on IM, Gchat, via email or text, or actually live on the telephone) in the recent past (i.e., within three weeks), I would consider them a friend. As I went through the list of names, I found that out of my 1,462 “friends,” I could not recall who 478 of these people actually were — not even by looking at their profile photos — or why I had accepted their “friendship” in the first place. Of the 984 individuals that I could at least say I “knew,” I had spoken to only 140 of them in the recent past. From that group, 21 were coworkers, one was my live-in girlfriend, another was my roommate, one was my mom, and one was my dog (whom I had made a profile for and then friended myself …) — all of whom, for the most part, I was expected to talk to every day.
This information astounded me. I had let 478 people — whom I did not know at all — see my photos, read my status updates, and know my whereabouts. There was this faceless horde that I had allowed into my innermost thoughts and private moments. Was it creepy? It was slightly creepy. Facebook gave me the cozy illusion of security and closeness. But the notion that only my inner circle is privy to my information is horrifyingly misleading.
That word: Friend. To me, it’s always meant someone you might confide in, someone you want to share things with, so when I shared photos and updates with my friends on my Facebook wall, it was always with the implicit understanding — or the unwarranted assumption — that the people I was sharing with were actually friends. When I got engaged, I got Facebook messages from around the world congratulating me. Sure, it was great to have the support and to know others were excited as well, but who were these people? Two messages in particular stood out: “Kim it is Katia from Russia. You look happy happy. You lucky girl to find a man like that. I follow you forever and now follow husband too! Love from Moscow!” My fiancée (the one named Lexi with the long brown hair wearing a bikini in the most recent upload) was not pleased. The other message that stood out was a bit more disturbing. “You dumb lesbian. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Tell me where you live and I’ll show you a real man.” Oh, okay. Cool. So nice to get this message from one of my “friends” on Facebook. I quickly unfriended him. But why was I friends with him in the first place? And why had I ever called these strangers “friends” if even for social media purposes?
What does friendship even mean in the context of all this easy clicking? We become “friends” with people who may have been on the fringe of the groups we hung out with in college, high school, or even grade school; random people we have fun with at parties; friends of friends we see once a year; or others we’ve met through work or our shared networks. Although they may “Like” some of our photos or status updates, we don’t actually speak to many of these random acquaintances, who are often closer to “stranger” on the friend-stranger scale. And yet they know personal information about us (or are a click away from it) because we share it willingly.
My feed is saturated with random strangers’ enlightening status updates, like “At Bloomingdales :) Happy … I love spending money that’s not mine :) thanx mom” (Who was this person?); relationship notifications from the oversexed and overinvolved; and general complaints and comments, like “classic L.A. problem: drive to dinner and then direct to the bar? Or drive to dinner, drive home, drop off the car and cab it to the bar?” (We get it. You’re going out tonight. Good for you.) My Facebook feed is cluttered with too much information that is not improving my life in any way.
Sometimes it all seems so hopeless.
But it’s not. My wife and I were cooking dinner with my parents one night last summer and my mom (who is literally the nicest person of all time and the last person I’d ever imagine unfriending someone) asked awkwardly, “Kimmy, would you mind showing me later how to stop being friends with someone on Facebook?” (See? She didn’t even know it was called “unfriend.” Bravo, Mom!) So I could have gone two ways with this. I could have simply told her, or I could dig a little deeper to find out who she wanted to unfriend. (I love parent gossip!) But before I could make my decision, my wife exclaimed, “Carol! Who do you want to unfriend?! Do tell, do tell!” My mom shifted a little bit. “Well … umm …” We carried on, asking her who. “Okay, fine,” she said, “I want to defriend Samantha.” (Samantha was my ex-girlfriend who had unfriended me, most of my friends, and my dog, but somehow had decided to stay “friends” with my mom [!].) It was a brilliant moment. My mom unfriending my ex. Does it truly get any better than that?
I used to think it was silly that my mother refuses to accept people on Facebook if she doesn’t feel close enough with them or doesn’t want to be privy to their daily status updates. But maybe she’s got the right idea; her feed isn’t overloaded, and more importantly, she knows who her friends are. So at the risk of pissing off a large number of people in my fourth-to-seventh-degree levels of acquaintance, I finally decided to follow my mom’s lead and delete the 478 people on my friend list I didn’t know. That left me with 984 “friends.” It’s a start.
Kim Stolz is the author of “Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do,” which focuses on social media’s influence on our personal relationships. Stolz is a bit of a social media celebrity after stints on “America’s Next Top Model” and years of work for MTV News as a broadcast reporter. Reach her @KimmyStolz.