If an expression like “the end of the affair” sounds torrid, the phrase “the end of the friendship” comes across a bit colder. I stopped answering Cindy’s* emails in 2012 when I realized how profoundly uncomfortable I was with the state of our friendship. I didn’t feel like arguing (again) about the past and I couldn’t trust her in the present. And yet, I kept her as a Facebook friend. Periodically, I would check her page—until a few months ago, when I clicked over and saw we were no longer “friends.” I was surprised, but I didn’t feel the need to ask her why. The answer seemed obvious.
But the puzzle of why a Facebook friendship ends isn’t always clear. On Monday, Buzzfeed ran a video by Zach Kornfeld called “4 People Unfriended Me On Facebook, So I Decided To Ask Them Why.” He learned about the unfriending from the app “Who Deleted Me,” which has since been removed by developer Anthony Kuske from every platform. Only two of Kornfeld’s former friends (David and Amanda) were willing to speak to him on-camera; the other two were uncomfortable with the questions to come. And I can’t really blame their reticence.
In response to Kornfeld’s questioning, Amanda said, “I think we stopped hanging out before we graduated college.” David was also a bit vague as to why his friendship with Kornfeld ended. He said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember why … it’s just kind of a distancing thing. You weren’t the only one, just so you know … We were into similar things and then we went on.”
Predictably, by the end of the video, Kornfeld ended up refriending the two ex-Facebook friends. Anti-birthday Amanda (who claims she most often unfriends someone after seeing a Facebook notification of their birthday) even managed to wish Kornfeld a “HBD” this year. Cue the happy tears!
Except, well, the whole segment came across as an awkward attempt to parse the end of two different friendships with people that Kornfeld didn’t seem especially close to in his current life. He never asks how their lives are going—if they are happy in their jobs, what they do for fun, if they have any exciting plans for the future. The entire segment revolves around soothing Kornfeld’s ego. And really, isn’t that the entire reason someone would even bother to track down an ex-Facebook friend?
I don’t think it matters why someone unfriends me on Facebook. But the reality is that many women are socialized to be hyperconsiderate and friendly—think of the opening lines for the Girl Scout pledge: “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring …” The idea of deliberately rejecting someone’s friendship (even through social media) goes against the ingrained messages women receive about valuing the needs of others above our own. But not all women accept the burden of carrying the torch for friendships that have long been extinguished by time, emotional or ideological distance, or even an inexplicable change of heart.
Bartender Jenny Murphy says, “I delete people mostly because they are no longer relevant in my life: someone I met at a party years ago or high school friends that weren’t actually friends… [But] now that they have the unfollow option, I mostly use that if I don’t like what I see from people.”
Emily Lindin, founder and president of The UnSlut Project, started using Facebook in 2005, back when the site was only available to college students. She says, “I don’t unfriend people if I think they’ll notice because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. There’s so little effort involved in maintaining a Facebook friendship that if you decide that person is not worth even having as a Facebook friend, I can see how that would be interpreted as really making a statement.”
Blogger Lola* agrees that deleting a former close friend makes a statement. She says she feels “petty” for “being annoyed when my ex-friend’s pictures pop up. We fell out over something stupid (I was gossiping about a lie that she’s been telling her whole life, to a friend that we BOTH gossip to). But I just feel like anything she posts is shade directed toward me because I know how she is, and it just annoys me, but I don’t want her to know that seeing her bothers me, so that’s why I haven’t deleted her yet.” But after our interview, Lola said, “I realized how dumb it all was. We’re not friends and if I don’t want to look at your face or memes. I don’t have to. Delete!”
On the other hand, Lindin usually doesn’t experience any doubts about unfriending on Facebook when it comes to politics. On her feed, she says, “I have a lot of posts related to #BlackLivesMatter and I post a lot of stuff related to feminism, obviously, so there are friends who emerge not just as passive disagree-ers, but instigators of animosity framed as civil discourse. Every time I read something they post on Facebook, it chips away at my happiness level—and I don’t really need that in my life.”
Feminist activist Katherine McGuiness feels that deleting an unnecessary contact on social media can be liberating. “I’ve never agonized over the decision,” she says. “If it’s someone that I feel weird about deleting because I see them often, but I don’t want to have a conversation about it, I’ll hide their updates from my page, and that helps to defuse the toxicity that is usually the reason I want to unfriend them. People’s online personas can be so terrible.”
Unfortunately, not all decisions to unfriend stem from harmless circumstances. My Product Addiction blogger Jennifer H. recently culled her friend list from 1600 to 900 friends. “I felt like I had let too many people in, too many people who had access to my life and what I was doing on social media. I had just left a job and I noticed that one of my colleagues was stalking me on social media. To me, it’s creepy for you to go back and ‘like’ pictures from 52 weeks ago.”
The problem started before Jennifer left her job. “When I would come to work, she would say, ‘I didn’t see you post anything on social media, I guess you didn’t do anything this weekend.’ It just seemed kind of weird because I don’t always post everything I do on Facebook. At one point, I got tagged in someone else’s picture on Instagram and she showed up—it was really unsettling. She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were looking for somewhere to go and I didn’t know where to go, so we just figured we’d go where you were.’ I feel like if I hadn’t nipped it in the bud as far as blocking her, it would have gotten worse. I realized I really had to watch who was following me on social media.”
Whether you’re the one cutting someone off or the one being cut, there’s rarely a satisfying explanation for “why” a friendship ends. But letting your ego drive the chase for answers won’t bring back the closeness you both once shared—or the access to a person’s photos, brunch spots and favorite articles. There’s a kind of freedom in not knowing (or caring) why it’s over. Delete.
* Name has been changed.