Why I purged my Facebook friends list

An unfriending spree made my online life a whole lot better

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 3, 2014 4:45PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-2059538p1.html'>JaysonPhotography</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(JaysonPhotography via Shutterstock)

It was a small act, but it was also one of liberation. In retrospect, I wonder if the woman had meant to come off quite so obnoxiously when she'd expressed her shock at my admission that I hadn't yet read that hot bestseller everybody was talking about. But the way that she'd phrased it -- "Well, what do you do with all that time when you're at your cancer treatment?" – made me wonder why I was friends with her in the first place. And then I realized: I wasn't her friend at all. We'd been in the same social circle of moms a few years earlier, before she'd moved away. We'd never been close and we were less than that now. Yet here we were, whatever semblance of a relationship we'd ever once had now reduced to me taking crap from her on Facebook. I scrolled over her profile picture and clicked "unfriend." Oh, the sweet freedom of decluttering.

I thought of that woman again recently, when a friend – a real one – mentioned that she'd found herself in a social media dilemma that was causing her true pain. Dolores [her name, like those of the other people quoted here, has been changed to protect her privacy] had been looking at an old school photo she'd been tagged in on Facebook, and there, in the comments, was the man who'd raped her. "I had almost posted something," she said, "but then, there's that asshole, close to me. Right there. There's his ugly face and his whole happy life. I don't want to see him smiling and acting normal. It scares me to think how many smiling normal men have a past of raping their dates." She blocked the man to protect herself from seeing his posts, but then she began to wonder about their mutual friends, and what value some of those other old faces from her past really had in her life any more. She decided it was time for a sweep as well. She unfriended the person who'd posted the original photo too.

In the early days of Facebook, it was easy – desirable even – to pick up friends with abandon. I remember my account back then as an empty home, and the impulse to furnish it was deep. I friended people I knew from other, similar online communities; I friended colleagues and old schoolmates and people I'd had an interesting conversation with that weekend at a party. Then a few simultaneous and unpleasant events happened in my on- and offline life. A person I'd crossed in an online community years before – and who'd taken great pleasure in abusing me there – found his way onto several lists of "mutual friends." A person I'd been briefly acquainted with many years ago found me in a Facebook group for a common interest, and began harassing me with obsessive messages.

Then I got cancer, and I decided that it was as good an excuse as any to make at least one place in my online life a little more private. I stopped – with only a few meaningful exceptions ever since -- adding friends. And I became ruthless about purging people I didn't have a strong enough connection to -- especially those who posted quack science stuff, who were openly hateful of ideals I stand for, whose entire feeds were of a self-promotional "DO THIS FOR ME" nature, or who frankly abused their "Here's another picture of what I'm eating right now" and "Here's another picture of my pet" privileges. I had never had a particularly bloated friends list, but after my "Game of Thrones"-like cleansing, it became considerably sleeker. Sure, I could have just hidden the feeds of some of them, but what would have been the point? Why keep people in the attic of your online life, never to interact with them? Why not just tighten up and move on?

Rachel, a law student, has a similar outlook. Three years ago, she cut her Facebook friend list right in half -- from 1,200 to 600. As she puts it, "I was applying to law schools and just thinking more about my professional reputation. Not that there was anything horrible on my Facebook, but I wanted to control the number of people who had access to all that information about me. I also think part of my motivation was to spend less time looking at the profiles of people I didn’t really know… It was easy at first to go through and cut people I had never actually met, then people I had met once or twice several years before, but hadn’t talked to since. It got harder as I decided to cut people who were friends of friends, people I went to school with for many years, and people whose lives I was interested in following, but with whom I did not have a personal relationship. I think I decided to keep schoolmates based on our friendship at the time, not on how well we’ve kept in touch since. I’ll admit that I held on to a few people I barely know just because they’re fun to follow."

Yet Rachel and I seem to be unique. When I asked around recently about unfriending, I was surprised at how many people don't do it. My writer friend Clark says, "I don't unfriend. I put people on a restricted list and try to make sure my 'public' comments are PG instead of R. FB, for me, in large part is about promoting literary readings and events, so to unfriend someone is to chip away at the potential of my market. And I think unfriending goes against the Southern manners with which I was raised. Better," he cracks, "to let the relationship die via slow, algorithmic atrophy."

Emmy similarly says, "I hide feeds now just because unfriending seems a little OFF WITH THEIR HEADS, which I know is stupid -- there's no implied social contract to stay 'friends' on social media -- even if, in my case, it's mostly business 'friends,' but I'm a wuss." Alicia says, "In my experience, unfriending is like a shot across the bow, inciting threats, unanswerable injured relations, toxic amounts of 'How could you?'" And Juliet adds, "It just seems cruel to unfriend someone, when they haven't done anything specifically to me."

Then there are those who see unfriending as a last resort. Ed, an attorney, recalls, "The one that comes to mind is the guy who tried to explain that trans-vaginal ultrasound was in fact a medically useful procedure for women seeking abortions." Carly admits, "I unfriended a guy who became a MRA. He posted a lot of anti-feminist BS, and so I pulled the plug. There are legitimate arguments to be made for men's issues, but MRAs are a hate group and rape apologists. Life is too short." Bella did it after a FB friend went on a selfies binge, explaining, "I felt like I was watching sadness in front of me." And Joanne takes the dramatic types at their word, noting, "The 'please unfriend me if'' thing is sort of a golden opportunity to do so."

I still have a few people on my friends list I'm not really friends with, but the urgency I once felt to clean house has abated as my Facebook circle has grown smaller. I certainly know firsthand the ego sting that an unfriending can bring. It's a decisive act, whereas most of the time in life it's easier to quietly drift apart. But I also know that the simplicity of a small list of names is a joy that outweighs it. Now, I just try to, in the words of my friend Meg, "be proactive by not friending stupid people." And my short list could always comfortably get even shorter. As my friend Susan puts it, "My feeling is that FB is purely recreational/personal and any aspect of it that makes me feel bad I am totally justified in eradicating."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Facebook Friendship Internet Culture Social Networking Unfriending