Facebook and friendship

By Legal Eagle

In some ways, Facebook is very good for friendship. Via Facebook, I’ve managed to get back in contact with various childhood and school friends, which has been lovely. I am the kind of person who takes friendships seriously. I’m still friends with three people from Primary School, for goodness sakes, let alone numerous people from High School. I love the capacity to keep in touch. The nicest aspect of Facebook is seeing people’s lives change for the better – when they get new jobs, when they have babies, when they finish their studies, when they get married.

In other ways, Facebook creates social difficulties. One example is when a Facebook friend dies. I keep seeing prompts to “reconnect” with a friend who died earlier this year, and every time I see it, I get a little jolt of shock and sadness. But I don’t want to “remove” that person as my friend, because that somehow seems disrespectful, and she’s still my friend, she’s just “late” (as Mma Ramotswe might say). Brigid Delany wrote an excellent article in the Sydney Morning Herald on this phenomenon, in which she notes how odd it is that the virtual self lingers on despite death:

Facebook is grappling with the question of what to do with the pages of deceased members. For a start, how does it know you have died? The problem is, it doesn’t. There is no mechanism to shut down a page if it has not been accessed by the user for a while, and attempts to track pages by keywords (such as shutting down pages where RIP appears a lot) have led to mistakes such as living members being locked out.

Until there is a way of finding out a user is dead, friends of the deceased must cope with ghosts in their machines.

They include the automatic messages from Facebook reminding you to ”reconnect” with your dead friend. Or reminders of your dead friend’s birthday. Having had friends who have died, getting these catch-up reminders from Facebook can be weird.

Sometimes people’s updates show that they are in a very different space. A few friends of mine have deeply religious updates, for example. As I’m not religious, I don’t have much to say. I don’t mind as long as the updates are not pious. At one point I had to “hide” a friend’s updates because they were starting to really irritate me. Once I also had a religious fight on Facebook with one of my cousin’s friends after the friend told me I was going to Hell. My poor cousin got home from dinner with his parents to find that some post on a survey about belief in God had 67 comments (a heated discussion between three of his friends and I). I was very foolish to do that, but I do have quite a temper, and sometimes I don’t always think. I deleted all my comments upon my cousin’s request.

I try not to post on politics and/or religion on Facebook any more, other than the automatic blog posts that come up on my feed. Usually I keep it to light updates: silly things the kids do, posts about food, progress updates on the PhD and funny stuff that happened at work.

I confess that I was one of those irritating people who played all those silly “-ville” games during the second half of last year, and I probably drove everyone batty, but I now think it was a side effect of being pretty stressed out with the PhD, lonely and unwell with pneumonia.

Another side effect of Facebook is that it’s hard to let a friendship gracefully drift if all the parties are Facebook users. I used to have two friends with whom I regularly caught up when I first had my daughter. I really valued those friendships at the time. Last year, I was very busy with the PhD thesis, so it took me a while to realise that I wasn’t seeing these friends any more. However, as far as I could see from Facebook, they were still catching up with one another. “Oh well,” I thought, suppressing a pang of hurt, “my schedule doesn’t match with theirs.”

Things deteriorated further when I wrote a blog post on a topic where my opinion strongly differed from that of my friends, and one woman took it as an attack on her personally (which it was not). We got into heated argument on Facebook which was very unpleasant. I didn’t mean to hurt them, and I don’t think that they meant to hurt me either, but I suspect all parties were pretty upset by the end of it. This is one of the reasons why I now strongly discourage comments on Facebook and ask that people post comments on the blog.

These women were still my “friends” on Facebook,  but did not have much interaction with me for the next six months. During that time, I expected them to “unfriend” me, because as far as I could tell, they no longer liked me very much. I became very sad and depressed after reading some of their status updates, particularly when it became evident from those updates that my child hadn’t been invited to their children’s birthday parties. I felt like I’d ruined my daughter’s friendships along with my own. I hid their status updates for about three months, but I couldn’t resist peeking at their profiles and getting sad. In the end, I “unfriended” them and their partners, a thing I thought I’d never do to anyone. It’s hard to get back from that. I wish one could simply make one’s brain perform an “unfriend” action too, but I don’t work like that, and of course I still care. It still stings.

I think some of the difficulty arises from the fact that social norms are less obvious than in yesteryear (although a simple Google search of “social networking etiquette tips” shows there’s a wealth of material out there). Often people don’t think over what they write. And sometimes, people read messages into stuff which were never intended. In the olden days, there was a gap between writing a letter and posting it which I’m sure was valuable. These days, it’s so easy to spew out one’s thoughts on the screen, especially with something like Twitter, which can be very dangerous if one has no filter (think, for example, of Catherine Deveny’s difficulties in that regard). There’s little gap between thought and expressing it in writing with social media, but there’s also no way of gauging audience reactions.

Also Facebook forces you to be definitive. Fundamentally, according to Facebook, someone is either a friend or she is not. The technology is relatively black and white. It doesn’t always let things drift, or allow for graceful partings of the ways. It doesn’t allow for death. Sometimes people move in and out of your life, sometimes friendships end, sometimes people change. And that’s okay. Friendship is all about shades of grey.


  1. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Very nice.

  2. Chris
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    This http://www.slideshare.net/padday/bridging-the-gap-between-our-online-and-offline-social-network by a Google research is worth looking at.

    It discusses how current social network sites like facebook make people just have 1 group of friends whereas in real life people have multiple, often distinct sets of friends. Making people mix them all together leads to situations like you describe.

    Then again it has been interesting to find out things about people I wouldn’t have known about without facebook – not so much from what they have directly written about as I think people are thinking about that a bit more, but from things they comment on from other friends. I don’t think everyone realises that their friends see that as well even if their not a friend as well with the friend’s status they’re commenting on.

  3. Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    xkcd.com/686/ is pretty poignant (but the popup text if you run a decent browser is typically twisted), and discussions in associated fora show the issue of deceased users with live processes still running on unix systems with long uptimes is a real phenomenon, sysadmins avoiding reboots.

    When we all have autonomous customized intelligent agents running, there’ll be an even stronger pseudo-life after death. I wonder if people will want to interact with those avatars, still communicating with their friends, more “real” the talking to urn, gravestone or photo becuse those agents will talk back.

    And sooner or later the agents of two friends, both dead, will converse… An eternal friendship if you will.
    Would you want your own well-customized agent to be able to “talk” to your great grandkids as they grow up? I don’t think I could turn an avatar of my grandfather off if it existed.

  4. Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I’d add I’m not going to defriend some folk soon, but they will be probably be blocked from most things (and their feeds hidden) come the start of the finals until the end of september – using group permissions, with the group name “collingwood fans”

  5. Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I have a dead facebook friend, and receive all the reminders you mention. It’s very irritating and rather weird, but I’m not sure what to do about it either.

    Very thought-provoking post, LE.

  6. kvd
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    LE I wonder how much of the angst is caused by the terminology? People who are basically contacts or acquaintances have been elevated to friends – because that’s what the computer calls them. And then we have to deal with all the traditional emotive meanings attached to the word.

    I must admit I lost interest in FB when my 12 year old niece started talking about pimping – with no shadow of deeper meaning attached to the word. I feel so old.

  7. Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I have acquired many ‘friends’ on Facebook who share my interests in gardening, writing and travel.
    But, my main reason for using Facebook is Search Engine Optimization so that the search engines like Google link my Facebook page, my blogs and my website, thus giving my otherwise static website more prominence.

  8. Tatyana
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Good post LE. FB creates some weird difficulties. I found it awkward when my former boss asked to be my ‘friend’. I accepted, but started interacting with FB in a way I would behave at a big party after that.

    As for dead friends, I haven’t experienced that situation on FB, but I have deleted my very close relative’s mobile phone number from my list of contacts, and although difficult, it was a relief in the long run. In a way it’s like sorting out dead person’s objects in real life, hard to do, but mostly necessary. I also figured this particular person wouldn’t want me to be reminded of her in this way …

    I know some people feel very differently about this. Some create FB memorials, and there’s something in it, but I don’t think I’d want one personally, and the business of the dead person no longer being able to control the content of such pages troubles me a bit.

  9. Miss Candy
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    ‘Three things that never come back; the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity.’ – William Gregory Paige (filched form a muslim proverb)

    Also: the facebook post.

    You can “customise” who receives your posts, or allow for limited profiles, but it is a very clunky way to organise such a fluid thing as friendship. I found out a high school friend excluded me from her posts once and found it very hard, but then realised that it did make sense in terms of our social circles – if I met them in the street I wouldn’t suddenly expect to be invited home for dinner.

    I do it selectively now, but largely because I think I may be annoying people who I barely know any more.

    I do have a policy of not being friends with work colleagues and students, with few exceptions for those whose friendship status has truly usurped their colleague status. Having a policy seems to make it easier to say no – I can be quite revealing and sometimes risque, not to mention political on FB.

    I impetuously but appropriately unfriended all my friends’ parents at one stage (including yours LE!) – I should have just excluded them from the post list, but didn’t know how to do it at the time.

    It made it hard when a friend died and his mother had previously been a facebook friend, so I couldn’t be updated about funeral arrangements etc. I’m glad there’s a half-way solution instead.

  10. Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink


    Good catalog of reasons why I don’t do social media. It is tempting to see if you can reconnect but…

    Don’t mean to be offensive or weird but I found the idea that someone who’s been shown across would re-appear from cybersphere really quite beautiful. Perhaps letting it happen for a while and then solemnly disconnecting is a form of something we used to call mourning.

  11. Posted August 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Don’t mean to be offensive or weird but I found the idea that someone who’s been shown across would re-appear from cybersphere really quite beautiful. Perhaps letting it happen for a while and then solemnly disconnecting is a form of something we used to call mourning.

    This strikes me as a good and fair point. Perhaps I should think about my dead friend in this way.

  12. Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I hide the updates from people who specialize in annoyingly prolific stream-of-consciousness postings. There’s a fair bit I don’t need to know. The etiquette is a bit funny too: you can send a friendly message in response to a friend request and then never hear from the person. Duh – so why request FB friendship in the first place? Many of my real world friends aren’t even on FB so it’s skewed in faviour of people I don’t hang around with. That said, there are still many FB friends that I like the idea of maintaining contact with or at least being able to contact easily. And my blog ID and FB are entirely separate, with just a couple of fellow-bloggers also being FB friends. But I treat it like Vegemite: to be used sparingly.

  13. Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] and [email protected] on Adriens “Don’t mean to be offensive or weird but I found the idea that someone who’s been shown across would re-appear from cybersphere really quite beautiful”

    That was the popup text of the xkcd cartoon, the admin superusering to the process, doing something and freaking people out.

    Hmm.. Thinking… pull apart the old Eliza psychoanalyst program… hook it up to a bank of quotes from M.Aurelius and Confucius and some koans, rather than Freud…. damn… there’s an idealized avatar (actually chatterbot) that could be left running!

    I wonder when wills will start including the giving of passwords to executors… or instructions on what to do with various social pages, avatars, custom chatterbots, etc?

  14. LDU
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Your post made me realise how dramatic Facebook can get.

    Lucky for me, I steered clear from all those social networking websites. Texting a mate for lunch/coffee or a ‘how you doing’ still works =)

  15. Kyle Weber
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea as to why certain people decide to “unfriend” me. I came across this website called http://www.myfriendreport.com where you can actually trace which of your friends have unfriended you. It’s pretty cool. They also provide you with a bunch of statistics about your friends. You should definitely check it out. Although, I must say, I was a bit upset to discover an old friend from high school had recently unfriended me. I’m still trying to learn why…

  16. Posted August 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Viz Facebook, friendship and death.

    Poignant and kinda eerie.

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