Friends Forever

Google is making us stupid. Our phones are damaging our hearts. Zadie Smith thinks social media has us pathologically caught in the consciousness of a snarky teenage boy. Rebecca Solnit has some scathing observations about SF’s tech boom. So too, I imagine our ephemeral Facebook connections must be leaving some psychological imprint on us, especially those friendships that we might not otherwise still have or want. On one hand I’m inclined to write off these concerns. The novelty of Facebook is gone for many of us; even my teenage students find it “boring” these days. So, does it really matter? In the early days of Facebook we all rushed to find everyone we could think of, amazed that it was possible, not considering whether we really wanted to or not. Part of the psychological imprint is that now we’re all somehow connected without actually interacting (sometimes without interacting in person and sometimes without interacting at all) to hundreds of people. Robert Kelly, my writing teacher in college, once told us that everyone we ever loved would exist forever as a ghost around us. I found that sad and thrilling and hoped it was true. He didn’t mean Facebook, but he certainly could have, and I’m less sure I hope it’s true now.

I had looked right through, when I wanted a universe that sustains looker and looking and the seen forever, detail after detail never ending. -‘Looking’ by Robert Kelly

Recently I “unfriended” someone, an important person from my past who renders me an irrationally passionate teenager. And the unfriend is truly the last resort of the irrationally passionate teenager. In an era of sophisticated privacy settings I can hide anyone who annoys me and I can control every piece of information I share. The unfriend is unnecessary; it’s the violent, tangible act we turn to when no other expression of our over-it-ness will suffice. Where before door slamming and shouted threats of never speaking again would get the point across, it’s now the click that quietly disconnects us.

In the aftermath of this unfriend I conducted a casual survey and it seems many of my friends have never unfriended anyone. Reasons include fear of seeming too invested or concerned, of offending, of giving Facebook too much validity, that they might change their mind (though in what dramatic statement about an interpersonal dynamic might we ever be sure?) and so forth. They rightfully hide the offending party and continue on. It’s a reasonable and sustainable approach where no one’s feelings are hurt and we don’t seem crazy. After all, there are plenty of people I’ve merely hidden and soon forget. It’s easy, painless and non-political. I can unhide if I want and I don’t seem fickle. Due to this clandestine option, I forget half the people I’m friends with, but therein lies part of the strangeness and the question. Why do I stay invisibly connected to someone I want to hide, no matter what the reason?

Schermafbeelding 2011-06-15 om 19.37.47

I was curious as to why this particular person, and a handful before him, inspired me to forego such social niceties as would make sense. I wanted him to know he was no longer allowed to see me and that I had no interest in seeing him. Not only did I want to disconnect from him symbolically (and literally) in a way that he could potentially be aware of and upset by, but I was also willing to give up the idea that he might get the occasional glimpse at the curated, controlled moments of my perfect, amazing, digital life and I was thereby severing all ties, including the unspoken one where we’re at least allowed to spy on each other. All levels and layers of our connection are obsolete, says the unfriend. If the newsfeed hide is when you pretend you don’t see someone at a party, the unfriend is when you throw your drink in their face and cause a scene. Who actually inspires that? And even if they do, should we give them the pleasure?

George and Martha would have unfriended each other.

There have been others, albeit slightly less dramatic ones. The acquaintance who was a jerk the last time I saw him, who never sent a message or interacted with me, but silently sat there as my hundred and whatever-eth friend doing nothing. Finally, when I still couldn’t remember if I liked him in real life or not, I unfriended him. Or the guy who wanted me to “like” his band (ten times!) but walked by me in Dolores Park because he didn’t recognize me. Or the guy who took me on three dates in college and was a hell of a breakdancer but had nothing to say since. Or an old girlfriend who seemed to have forgotten clearly telling me we weren’t friends anymore (in our early 20’s). These people shouldn’t be connected to me because they aren’t. We don’t know each other anymore or we never did. What does it do to my brain/heart/psychology to know they’re there anyway? We’re not even actively looking at each other’s lives most likely, but instead just absent-mindedly, occasionally looking, listlessly and invisibly bound to one another. In what unconscious, tiny ways are we changed by revealing ourselves like this, by looking at others and being seen within this framework?


Once this most recent person was unfriended, I felt calmer, less seen, more myself (and fascinated that these were all equated). He wasn’t there, wherever there is. He was gone, not hidden. What further interested me was that he was as absent from my offline life as ever, but the palpable sense of getting him out of my online life felt substantial. And that speaks to the odd importance of our online selves, how they mirror or reinforce who we really are. In my informal survey many had obviously unfriended exes but others had purposefully kept them around so as not to give them the “satisfaction” of being unfriended, a funny twist. Are our experiences any less if everyone can’t see it? Some part of our experiences include us wanting specific other people to know about them. There’s some secret part of ourselves that must admit we want that. But the unfriend is saying I don’t and therefore has some actual meaning and significant social power.

Facebook has made us forget that we don’t want to know everyone. We’ve forgotten it can be nice to be alone, as it can be helpful to be quiet. I’ve made a ritual of not going on my phone first thing in the morning, or taking it out when my dinner companions excuse themselves and this helps me have one or two quiet moments inside my own head. Along the same lines I’ve also decided that the unfriend is allowed. The art of the unfriend can range from the occasional housecleaning of people you really don’t know or will never see again, to the psychological protection of ridding yourself of someone bad for you, to no longer aligning yourself with someone you don’t want to be aligned with. Don’t avoid the unfriend for fear of seeming melodramatic or one day changing your mind. Delete your ex-boyfriend if he makes you so mad you forget you’re a grown woman. Delete the friend you wouldn’t want to meet for a drink in real life. Grow apart like you should.


The road trip, running around in the woods at night, the car crash, when he played piano in the empty auditorium, those are the fleeting actual moments of my life, the relationships that dissipated or strengthened, that evolved or ended, in real time. Those living moments of our friendships happened and are remembered or not, mattered or didn’t. This person’s status as my Facebook friend was an electronic glimmer that distracted me.The inexplicable nature of why we’re drawn to one another and why we stay or go is the endless fascination of my life. If only it were simple to understand, but in the meantime, even if he does exist forever as a ghost around me, he doesn’t exist on Facebook because I unfriended him.

The Psychology of the Facebook “Unfriend” 4 August,2014Laura Schadler

  • Nicolas Kons

    “If the newsfeed hide is when you pretend you don’t see someone at a party, the unfriend is when you throw your drink in their face and cause a scene.” Awesome!

  • Mark

    if you doesnt like your friend anymore try this

  • naomi kaly

    i personally think it is cowardice and an uncivilized way to handle relationships

    • anon

      I had a friend who pressured me into sex with drugs at a hotel and then acted like it was no big deal, and sent me presents in the mail after. Maybe I should just stay friends with him on FB. Or I could unfriend him and save myself a lot of trouble. I had another friend who was just bitchy. The good thing about meeting and knowing a lot of people is that you can choose who you want to be friends with. Sure it’s gonna raise eyebrows and is sometimes socially unretractable like throwing a drink in someones face, but that’s a personal choice. I think if that’s the metaphor for unfriending, staying friends with someone is like having a picture of them on your wall. It’s small but it’s still there in the corner, that’s just effing weird. Facebook is supposed to be fun. If you want an index of all the people you’ll ever meet, make a mailing list!

  • Ima Tell

    I thought this was brilliant and it really helped me and comforted me. Thank you.

  • disqus_yt9QTV2HPE

    Great piece. I don’t think it’s cowardice at all. In fact I think it’s kind of childish to feel like you need to stay “connected” to people who don’t mean you well or to people who belong in your past. The bad memories are enough, why continue to let these people have a glimpse of your life, and why give in to the temptation of keeping tabs on them? This is a recent realization of mine and this article hit the nail on the head

  • Vương Vi-Nhuyễn – 王微軟

    I in all honesty can’t believe that people actually treat their ”friends” that way, so anti-social ah.

    • Vương Vi-Nhuyễn – 王微軟


      There he
      was, he came out of nothing, and called me by my name.

      He started
      talking in my Native-Language, and smiled at me.

      I cannot
      recall anyone with his face.

      He told me
      his name, I have more than 20 friends with that name,

      I think of
      each one, I try to place his face, but it’s in vain.

      He speaks
      so passionately of me, he recalls our days together as

      ‘’the best
      moments of his life’’, he proceeds by describing in detail

      the old
      spots of my childhood. He names some other friends I cannot

      recall. We
      later walk to a bar, he treats me on a drink, he says that it

      is nice to
      see his ‘’best friend’’ again, all I can think is ‘’¿Who are

      you?’’ but
      I remain too kind to express a single doubt. He proceeds to

      talk about
      my native province, so long I haven’t been there. A single

      manly tear
      falls from my cheek as I’m reminded of the Kingdom far, far

      away I’ve
      left. He still resides in the old Kingdom, and visits this place

      only for
      business, ¿why can’t I remember someone who was once so dear

      to me? He
      smiles, for some reason I feel something warm inside of me,

      for some
      reason I feel happy, he gives me his number, kisses my cheek

      and says,
      ‘’I’ll see you later old-friend’’. He smiled, and it made me smile.

      Later I sit
      alone in my apartment, thinking about all my friends with that name,

      he doesn’t
      resemble a single one of them, thinking about all the old adventures

      I’ve had in
      my native province, he isn’t in a single one of them. I spend the entire

      thinking about him. When I finally fell asleep I had a nightmare in which I

      was a
      child, and I cried for an old friend whom I was about to leave. In the morning

      I woke up,
      I couldn’t recall my friend’s name, face, or experiences anywhere in my

      Past. One
      question keeps haunting my head ¿Who was he, and why can’t I remember

      this friend
      who was once so dear to me?

  • Maggie Hilton

    Yesterday, I received a facebook message from a friend of 20 years. It was written by some illiterate woman claiming to be his fiancé, I wrote back and asked who is this. The response was awful, I told her that if my friend wanted to no longer be friends then he needed to tell me himself. She unfriended me from his account. Here is my response that I posted for the whole world to see!

    Well, I have had time to process what happened this morning with a friend of 20 years. It is a compliment that I am a threat, and I guess I am. I am ivy league educated, have an incredibly successful career, friends and family that love me, I am financially stable, have a psycho kitten, am well read, well-traveled, and married to the love of my life. Not to mention I live in China! I am also secure enough in all my relationships that I do not feel the need to send poorly written, threatening messages to people! I also, would never tell my husband who he can be friends with as he does have balls and would tell me to piss off in a heartbeat. So, it is sad that some welfare momma feels threatened by me but I am a threat! What she doesn’t know is that I am only attracted to incredibly successful ,good looking men. I would never be interested in a 40 year old college dropout who lives at home with his mother, has a minimum wage job at Sears, 2 drug convictions that I know off, suffers from depression and has a drinking problem. So, Marc Hopkins and Charmain Ross, thanks for reminding of how awesome I am. I wish you both all the best and clearly you deserve each other! I forgot, I am not illiterate and have very strong writing skills!
    So, I am saddened to know that a dear friend from my university days as decided some loser piece of ass is worth more than his old friendships. I wish them both well and Karma is a bitch!

  • Doofus Lamewright

    Great write up. I was recently unfriended by a girl who I liked. I sent her a message on Facebook asking her out. Don’t get me wrong I know her in person I didn’t just randomly find her on fb and send her a message asking her out. I concede that asking her out on fb may not have been the best way to do it, but I wanted to express my interest. She never responded to my message and instead unfriended me 2 months later. I always suspected the psychological reasons for someone unfriending someone else. I believed she was sending me a clear message that I was no longer welcome in her life. Your piece helped confirm my belief. But what I still don’t get is what caused her to send me this clear message

  • anon

    Really thought provoking article! I think some people can handle being friends with 1000 plus people and not have it affect them, but I’m not one of them. People are acting like it’s like an address book, but Facebook has evolved into such a complex organism that it’s more than just a book of faces, it’s people peering into your life, and you may not even remember. I know there’s a limited profile feature but I’m not spending that much time doing that, and it feels deceitful in a way. I find blocking to be even more effective than unfriending because then they can’t even see your profile at all!


Laura Schadler

Laura Schadler grew up in the mountains of Virginia. She studied filmmaking at Bard College, and writing at California College of the Arts. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, Fourteen Hills, and West Branch Wired, among others. She teaches writing and is currently working on a novel.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor