Unfriending for Sanity

sanity_signA few weeks ago, I decided to take the word “friend” seriously in regards to my Facebook account. Looking through my friends list, I realized that my “friends” included actual friends and close family members; along with distant cousins; acquaintances; colleagues; folks I met once at a conference; folks I barely spoke to when we attended high school together; and even folks I only know through another social network, Twitter. I should add that my friends list did not include students; my policy has long been that I do not friend students on Facebook, in part to avoid the “creepy treehouse” phenomenon that Jason wrote in an earlier ProfHacker post. I also keep my privacy settings at “Friends only,” so that my status updates and pictures aren’t made available to students through those of my colleagues who do friend their students.

I realize that, for many people, a Facebook friend differs substantially from a “real” friend. Indeed, I’ve heard my students use the term “Facebook friend” as a rough synonym for “acquaintance”: e.g. “She’s a friend of mine—well, she’s at least a Facebook friend.” Many people maintain a wide circle of acquaintance on Facebook, and tailor their use of the service accordingly. Many of my colleagues foster deep, ongoing professional relationships through Facebook, which is a wonderful use of the service.

I wasn’t doing that, however. I was using Facebook as a personal network, despite the fact that my network extended far beyond the personal. When I thought carefully about how I was using social networks, I realized—or, perhaps, I reasserted—two things:

  1. I don’t have to friend everyone who asks. This might seem self-evident, but I realized that I was friending everyone who sent me a request, even if I barely knew them or wasn’t genuinely interested in (re)connecting with them. I was doing this, mostly, to avoid insulting anyone or appearing aloof. However, I would often end up hiding these people’s updates, which means I wasn’t actually networking with them. I decided to remove these faux friends, and to make real decisions about friend requests in the future. From now on, I will not feel compelled to friend someone because I took a class with them in high school. Some people use Facebook for class reunions, but I’m not interested in doing that.
  2. I can separate my personal and professional worlds. This one is, I will admit, a little tricky. I have colleagues whom I consider friends, and so those relationships bridge these two worlds. However, I realized that I use Twitter primarily for professional communication, and Facebook almost exclusively to post personal updates, including pictures and video of my family. Frankly, I can’t imagine that many of the people who were on my Facebook friends list would care about what I post there. What’s more, I realized that I was hesitant to post certain things—a lament, say, about a bad day at work—for fear of who might see it. I decided to remove purely professional contacts from my Facebook friends.

Ultimately, I cut my Facebook friends list by half. Doing so has slowed my Facebook news feed drastically—a change I’ve appreciated. If any of my distant acquaintances noticed the change—which, if they were ignoring my updates as I was theirs, is unlikely—they haven’t written any angry emails letting me know. Honestly, this change has allowed me to spend less time on Facebook; I go there to post pictures of my kids, or to post the occasional personal update. In my case the time saved probably isn’t too significant—I’ve never been a heavy Facebook user—but I’ve been surprised how much mental space this purging has created.

As social networks proliferate, we will have to make choices about where to spend our time and where not to. I made the choice to separate Twitter and Facebook: one for professional contacts, and the other for genuinely personal contacts. What about you? How do you manage your social networks? Tell us about the choices you’ve made in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user storyvillegirl.]

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