steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*I know a man who had to sleep on his  couch  because his sister’s daughter “unfriended”  his  wife.

Seriously.  According to my buddy, the liaison  between his wife and his 20 year-old niece has always been rocky. The last couple of years had seen kinder relations, at the height of which the wife enjoyed  delicate entrée onto his niece’s  treasured  Facebook  page.

However, during a family Sunday brunch at the home of the husband’s parents,  a political debate between the two women   digressed into something personal, loud and nasty.

“The funny thing is,” said my man, “at the end of the brunch, they surprised us all by apologizing to each other and to the family.  I thought  everything was fine.  Then, that night [his wife] went online to comment on some photos my niece had posted.  That’s when she realized she’d been unfriended. And she went freakin’ ballistic.  I said, ‘Why the hell do you care?’  That question led to the argument that landed  me on our couch. I’d never seen her like that before.  It wasn’t just anger; she was downright hurt.”

Apparently.  But then, of all the words, phrases, acronyms and symbols introduced or redefined by the vast, almighty  Internet, none would appear to hold  more power than Unfriend.

To the three people whose souls have not (yet) been snatched by Facebook, a brief explanation:  unfriend is what a Facebook user does when they remove the name of a friend, acquaintance or business from the Friends list of their Facebook page.

Usually, unfriending has little to do with malice. A  Facebook user might merely “clean house” of  those who are “friends” in name only–people or entities with whom they seldom communicate.  Friends who offer updates every second of their existence are liable to be unfriended–not out of enmity, but simply because there are only 24 hours in a day.   Unfriending might also be used to fend off the “friend” who offers unwanted,  offensive overtures. And, of course, there are those who unfriend out of spite.

Regardless, unfriending  can be a special experience for both the unfriended and those doing the unfriending. That’s because on  Facebook, whose  hallmark is acceptance, unfriending, pure, unfiltered and uncut, feels distinctly like rejection.

The word itself sounds barren: unfriend, undead–same thing.   Since Facebook offers no  bells, whistles or fireworks notifying a  user of their dreaded status,  consider the cruel irony of learning that someone unfriended you only when you attempt to reach them via their Facebook page.  Kind of like stepping into the bathroom shower and finding you’re without hot water. Or that your TV suddenly has no cable. Or discovering your Internet service abruptly gone.

However, unfriending is the kind of detached communique typical of a society where texting–whose concept is based  on communication as streamlined as possible–is often preferred  to a phone call.

Unquestionably, Facebook has forever altered our method of  communicating and relating to one another.  But if Facebook, along with Twitter,  have become ways for a portion of humanity to validate its very existence–if that’s all it takes–then it figures that a single word, unfriend, would carry so much emotional weight.   To witness its might on the touched and the disturbed,  one only has to peruse the Internet for  news stories of people who have tried to  maim, kill or burn down the homes of  those who have unfriended them.  In the sometimes Bizarro-like world of Facebook, it’s often not about who you befriend but UNfriend.

Ask “sane” Facebook people about unfriending and you hear in their voices either a quiet guilt for unfriending, or embarrassment at being unfriended.   Such conversations are characterized by qualifying phrases like, “I had to, she was out of control” or “It happened to me…but just once, and I have no idea why.”

Facebook users speak of a place where the unfriended  shamelessly request friendship of those who unfriended them just hours earlier; a place where “friendship” is dangled before the tragically insecure like a golden carrot.

And not all people unfriend their enemies. “Do that and you’re showing your hand,” snickered someone who admits that she prefers the social network over dealing with people in person.  “What I do is keep them as a friend and figure out other ways to get revenge.  Hey, that’s no worse than unfriending people to watch them beg to be let back in. That’s like stabbing somebody just to watch them bleed.”

Or like unfriending your wife  on Facebook when an argument over unfriending  gets you banished to the couch–ultimately landing the two of you in divorce court.  As I said,  unfriend is a powerful word.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].