The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its 2009 Word of the Year: "unfriend". If you're not familiar with the ins and outs of social networking, or don't have children, it means: "to remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook." The dictionary offers the example: "I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook after we had a fight."
The etymologists and lexicographers can argue the merits of unfriend vs. de-friend, or the verb vs. adjectival form. But I'm curious about the deeper emotional experience of "unfriending."
When you unfriend someone, there's no dialogue, no conversation and no discussion. You choose their name, click on a command and poof!, your friend(ship) is instantaneously deleted. As for how your "friend" reacts when they find out, I guess that's their problem.
Such is the nature of online friendship. In and out – quick and easy. As for connection, trust and intimacy? Those seem to be superfluous.
So, here we go again. The arguments supporting how one can so easily create community, connection and communion in social networks, where deep trust and intimacy become the glue that binds one's friendships again appear specious – arguments proffered by those who have some underlying emotional/egoic need to offer them.
Intimacy vs the mundane
From what I read, hear and observe on social networks, real intimacy, connection and communion are the exception that prove the rule. Friendship for most is, at best, casual.
What it tends to amount to instead is banal, desultory and mundane exchanges, or the rehashing and back-and-forth of everyday ideas and information in an effort to (1) connect, (2) feel seen and appreciated, (3) massage one's ego, (4) feel secure and un-abandoned or (5) disengage from what one should really be engaged in. This is not the stuff of True and Real Friendship.
How and why would I choose to delete a "friend" in the blink of an eye? And what is that friendship like in the first place? What's the foundation on which I've built such a friendship? Intimacy, trust, and connection? Doubtful.
I'd argue that true and real friendship cannot be created over the ethers. The appearance and perhaps momentary "connection" that one feels with an online "relationship" is no different from a real-time "long-distance" relationship. And we know that many if not most long distance relationships don't work out in the long run, especially when the two partners eventually come face to face for the long term. Why?
In a word – personal-ness. The most-important building block of a strong relationship is emotional connection, the kind that kicks in when two folks are sitting face-to-face, knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart. These emotional connections arise when physical space and contact are the ground of connection, something that is lacking in social networking.
- How do you communicate with folks at work? In person or electronically? How about with your partner/spouse or children during the day?
- Do you have trust issues with any of your friends?
- Are you usually emotionally available when folks need you? Are your friends emotionally there for you?
- Have you "dropped" a friend, or been "dropped" by a friend? Why? What was that like for you?
- Do you ever feel lonely, isolated or depressed?
- All things being equal, if you had the chance, would you tell your online friends when you're coming to their city and ask to see them in person? What if they came to your town? If not, why not?
- Do you avoid face-to-face conversations?
- In what other ways do you avoid emotional connection with others?
- Are you addicted to Twitter, Facebook or other social networking sites?
- Do you have more online friends than "real-time" friends? If so, why?
That's not to say a "feel-good" emotional substitute is impossible; it's not. But it is a substitute - the type of feel-good feeling one might experience in the initial throes of an affair, or on an alcohol or drug high. But it's not the real interpersonal-ness that occurs in personal connection. That's why one experiences little to no discomfort when "unfriending" someone.
This void makes it easy. There is no real emotional or human connection in a void. So there is no real friendship with the "friend" one is "unfriending." Imaginary or superficial friendship, perhaps; but that's all.
Oh, and the kicker?
Burger King has just unveiled its new offering – the Angry Whopper. BK has aligned with Facebook, creating an application to help promote its new burger. Instead of encouraging folks to join Facebook, and create new "friends," Burger King's new Whopper Sacrifice Application offers you a free Whopper if you "defriend" ten folks from your friends list. Friends and friendship - so elusive, ephemeral and expendable.
The spiritualist Joan Borysenko writes: "We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch."
Without heart-felt emotional connection, friends and friendship will continue to erode into superficial, casual contacts – "friends" we would just as easily "defriend" for a burger!
Pass the ketchup, please. Or on second thoughts . . . .