The Politics of Online Friendship

Photograph Source: GotCredit – CC BY 2.0

It happens to everyone.  You’re scrolling through your Facebook feed and encounter a name you either dislike or admire.  You head over to their page to check out the latest news or analysis, or to laugh at their latest bad take, but something’s off.  The page seems incomplete.  And then you realize why.  You immediately direct message [DM] a trusted partner in private gossip:  “I think that fucker unfriended me.”

You wonder what happened.  Was it the argument we had last week?  Did somebody put them up to it?  Is it about Syria/Bolivia/Iran/Venezuela?  Do they just not like me anymore?

Probably.  With a few more possibilities, to boot.  We don’t often discuss unfriending (or unfollowing) because it’s perceived as silly or meaningless, but these days so much political interface occurs on social media that it won’t do to ignore actions capable of generating strong response.  Do those actions tell us anything about supposed “real-world” politics?  Maybe.  We won’t know without a sense of how they work.

From what I’ve observed over many years—in self-consciously political spaces, mind you—here are the main varieties of unfriending/unfollowing (mostly Facebook, but I also have Twitter in mind):

The rebuke:  It comes in many forms, but its main purpose is to quantify rejection.  I’m not simply disapproving of your politics or lifestyle or morality; I’m rejecting it, as illustrated by this unfriending. The rebuke is most effective when it is announced:  “Ugh, this opinion is stupid.  Unfriending.”  Can result in a block if things get spicy.

Saving face:  This happens when somebody on your friends list is so toxic or unlikeable that it affects your own reputation, even if you never interact with that person.  People will DM you:  “Hey, are you aware that you’re friends with this awful person?”; or, “This guy just said something really sexist/racist/homophobic.  Just wanted you to know,” which is social media code for “immediately unfriend this bum.”  Things can get dicey, because if you disagree that the person in question did something wrong, or don’t care what the person did, then you risk being unfriended (and lambasted) by the original interlocutor.  It happens more publicly, too.  Somebody will post, “I’m shocked to find out that I have 72 mutuals with this scumbag,” and then proceed to tag all 72 of the mutuals in the ensuing thread.

Avoidance:  When somebody consistently posts material that you find unappealing or annoying or objectionable, you can “hide” or “mute” that person, but unfriending is a more satisfying option.  Here unfriending has a ring of decisiveness and finality.  It’s a way of curating the newsfeed to reflect your preferences, but also sends a message that certain boundaries govern your page.  Similar to the rebuke, but less spontaneous.

Real-life influence:  You have a fight or falling out with an offline friend that carries over to your online relationship.  (The inverse is friending someone you’ve never met.)

Ideological fatigue:  The online left is notorious for discord.  That discord leads to arguments, which lead to unfriending.  (It could be that liberal and conservative spaces are equally antagonistic.  I have no idea; I don’t hang out in those environs.)  Sometimes it requires no argument, or no engagement at all, to unfriend an ideological foe; it only requires recognition of what is considered to be an inherent difference of values or outlook.  Communists and social democrats don’t historically play well together.

Family drama:  An uncle or a parent or a cousin sees that pic of you partying or being a bit too affectionate and suddenly the family grapevine is whirring like a garbage disposal.  The phenomenon can be pronounced for children of immigrants.  So you let go of nosy or gossipy family members.  Look, nobody enjoys unfriending their own mother, but—.  Scratch that.  It can be highly enjoyable.

Graduation:  High school classmates, old acquaintances, one-time crushes, individuals you barely remember.  You no longer want to pretend you have any sort of relationship.  They may not notice the unfriending.  If they do, they’re not supposed to care.  (But they probably will.)

Busted:  When you catch somebody talking shit on you (usually you’ll have been tipped off).  Now, the definition of “talking shit” is remarkably broad in online cultures.  It can be nothing more than disagreement about which presidential candidate won the latest debate.  But plenty of old-fashioned shit-talking occurs.  The ensuing fallout is the lifeblood of social media.

I regularly unfriend/unfollow.  I’m obsessive about curating my feed, which is almost pointless because the algorithm has ultimate control.  Still, there’s certain stuff I don’t want to see:  pragmatic arguments for voting Democrat; self-promotion through ostensible concern for the dispossessed; sloganeering in a cynical effort at shares and retweets; sucking up to anyone with social capital; criticism of the failures of the latest country the USA is fixing to destroy (if I want State Department talking points dressed in high-minded concern for democracy, I’ll browse CNN or the New York Times).

I also avoid certain personality types.  Take the many assholes who inhabit social media.  Some are charming.  Some are insightful.  Some are principled.  Some are empathetic.  Others, though, are just garden-variety assholes who think they’re charming, insightful, principled, or empathetic.  They’re likely to be white men who wouldn’t want to hear that they’re low-rent versions of Bill Maher.  I can deal with an asshole, but a boring asshole is no kind of fun.

Unfriending isn’t always so heavy.  At times, I simply want to replace lapsed users with a new set of faces.  Again, the algorithm makes this choice difficult.  On Facebook, I see the same four or five people in my feed; on Twitter, it’s a preponderance of blue checks I don’t even follow.

Your criteria are undoubtedly different.  We all curate, though, even if to different degrees.  Curation is essential to social media, which illuminates a few things about how we visualize usage or participate with a form of usage imposed by engineers and advertisers.  First of all, we consent to the authority of invisible timekeepers.  The platform determines the value of our content in relation to its profit scheme. We like to feel rewarded (emotionally, psychologically, economically, politically), but the platform disburses rewards with no concern for our feelings.  Freedom to comment, to connect, to commune, is a well-managed illusion.

Textual identities become the property of investors.  Simulation governs notions of online friendship:  the ethics we might apply to traditional friendship don’t cohere to the economy of online interaction.  Being “friends” on Facebook is a kind of voluntary self-organization into exploitable consumer categories.  All the fighting we do about politics merely facilitates our distribution into various sites of corporate extraction.  An unfriending feels like a personal statement, but in reality it’s a categorical transaction.

And none of this shit happens organically.  Those who run the platforms can decide who will become famous or obscure.  Many users model their participation according to these strictures.  The platforms organize social relations based on antisocial criteria:  political manipulation, governmental surveillance, civic orthodoxy, plutocratic dominion.  Everything, as always, is weighted to the benefit of power.  Fame-chasers and celebrity activists reproduce the problem.  The clever ones become their own little corporations.  Social media offer stimuli for performances of selfhood.  It’s like putting a camera crew in someone’s house and expecting them to act “naturally.”

Unfriending is important in light of what we want social media to be, but it doesn’t influence how social media actually function.  Our existence as digital beings makes for a strange ontology.

Am I saying that social media are useless?  I hope not.  (I am implying that they’re sinister, though, which isn’t the same as useless.)  I’m trying to make a case that the seriousness or silliness with which we use social media doesn’t change the outcome of our usage—that in fact our pronouncements and indignation and echo chambers can feel good but only superficially mitigate alienation.  They mostly serve as raw material for advertising executives and intelligence agencies.

I’ve made real friends on social media, people I love and respect, but the spaces are designed to inhibit community (defined here as formations governed by a desire for collective well-being).  In many ways we’re disembodied when we use the sites, mere brands in conflict, struggling for market share in an industry that exists solely to exploit us.  We participate as individuals and decide the fate of others in fits of dictatorial conceit.

The culture of unfriending arises from these parameters.  There’s plenty of overlap with real-life friendship, but only because it gets harder by the year to conceptualize social media as hermetic.  Unfriending someone is fundamentally impersonal.  Its consequences are largely abstract.  There’s little at stake in the decision to sever a relationship because there’s no material relation.  Deploying the language of friendship to describe digital interplay is one of Facebook’s most invidious features.  Kinship doesn’t exist in pixels.

Anyway, you’ve surely noticed that one result of having access to so many immediate and unmediated thoughts is hating more people than you’d otherwise have an opportunity to hate.  Good friendship has always required an element of mystery.  Too much contact is a recipe for ennui or fatigue.  And perhaps it’s better if we don’t always know what others think of us.

Despite their structural problems, social media can be positive:  they allow us to communicate with distant loved ones; promote our work and accomplishments; offer opinions without corporate media gatekeepers; discover funny jokes and offbeat stories; read articles from alternative sources; and challenge luminaries unaccustomed to pushback (the next topic in this series).  I hadn’t intended for this essay to be a polemic against the use of social media and still don’t see it as performing that function.  I’m more comfortable with the argument that even the most politicized social media users shouldn’t pretend they’re doing something revolutionary.  In essence we’re providing labor for the system most of us purport to oppose.

The upshot?  None of the curation or the drama it engenders will change the world’s material relations, but all of it matters deeply to the online identities we cultivate and inhabit.  We’ve been fooled into believing that a satisfying experience on social media indicates possibility.  Not much of anything beyond individual gratification is possible, however.

You can see users’ investment in social media platforms as vehicles for change by the pious scolding, the grand pronouncements, the painfully dull observations about the state of the left.  In these cases, social media deftly negate fantasies of upheaval.  The left won’t do shit, mostly because in the USA there’s no organized revolutionary formation, only a set of romantic discourses beholden to the exceptional promises of capitalism and settler colonization.  Any sentence that begins “the left needs/should/must” is sure to end in cliché.

Why use social media at all, then?  I don’t know.  Why visit the beach?  Why watch a basketball game?  Why subscribe to Netflix?  Why take a drive into the country?  Why climb a mountain?  We do things that offer pleasure or pass the time even (or especially) if they aren’t visibly connected to a greater purpose.

So, yeah, at some point you may have unfriended me, and I was probably confused or insulted or wounded, just as you probably were when somebody expunged you from their digital life.  The real lesson of Facebook is staring right at us, isn’t it?  Maybe it’s wise to be wary of any platform that makes it so easy to hurt another human being.

This essay first appeared on Steven Salaita’s blog.