Following, Friending, and Fighting: The Rules of Friendships Online

5 years ago

Social media is supposed to be all about connections. So what happens when those connections fray?

Photo Credit: Frayed Connections via Shutterstock.

Most of my online connections started organically enough – the first people I ‘friended’ on Facebook were real-life friends, relatives and online friends whose relationships had been cultivated during years of getting to know each other through our blogs.

Next came the coworkers, the old high-school and university buddies, the long-lost roommates we spent hours discovering in the wormhole that is another person’s friends list.

And then came Twitter, where my collection inflated; our personal boundaries for claiming knowledge of one another expanding exponentially to anybody that engaged online; anybody that followed me first; anybody that wanted in.

Sometimes, I would (and still do) get a scary, first-day-of-school kind of feeling about interactions on social media. Do I know you well enough to friend request you? Should I follow or are we not there yet? Are your rules the same as mine? Am I overstepping or do I just not see the welcome mat laid at my feet?

Eventually I began to impose arbitrary systems for keeping track of my social media connections: if LinkedIn was my Rolodex, Facebook would be my address book and Twitter would be my catchall. I would engage with the appropriate level of privacy vs. information sharing, deciding who would be interested in, and with whom I would feel most comfortable, sharing personal photos; who would benefit most from my off-the-cuff witticisms; who would most appreciate carefully vetted news items and of course, with whom I could most expertly and benevolently share my professional work and build my profile as a writer.

But this is a system that is difficult to sustain. If Twitter is supposed to be a place where literally anybody can talk with anybody else, at what point do I move somebody out of the, ‘we have knowledge of each other online’ category to the, ‘Following’ category? If I met you at a conference and we shared a laugh, am I obligated to follow you on Twitter? If you follow me on Twitter, am I obligated to accept your Facebook friend request? If there is no way in hell our businesses will ever overlap and I don’t even really like you very much, must we exchange LinkedIn profiles?

Sometimes, when this all gets to be too much, I demote people. Well, that’s harsh. What I do is semi-regularly happen upon somebody in a friend list somewhere that I realize either a) I haven’t interacted with in a long, long time b) has consistently been bringing me down with their online shenanigans c) has truly done something to piss me off or d) unfollowed me though I didn’t realize it and so I return the favour.

It all becomes very petty, actually, a game I tire easily of playing. I start to think about opening the boundaries altogether, removing all semblance of personal information from social media and just letting everybody in everywhere. Or I start to think about stopping altogether. Shutting it down, privatizing, getting off, getting out. Both are liberating, scary ideas for a person living so much of her life online.

A meaningful interaction, a wonderful shared post or a tweet from somebody I had been missing usually brings me back around and out of the throes of any virtual existential crisis I may be edging toward. I manage my time online in a more productive way, and appreciate the people in my online space more, at least for a while.

And then, this week, two things:

First, a real life friendship took a total nosedive. For the sake of not airing dirty laundry, I will assume my culpability in this, but regardless of who was right or wrong, the friendship is certainly strained. Fractured. Tense and tenuous and not something I feel like I can put any more energy into at the moment.

So why is this person still sending me messages on Facebook? Why is this person still tweeting me?

If the basis of all of our online interactions stem from the fact that we have had a real life relationship, and that relationship is now – at least to me – fragmented, how is it at all possible to compartmentalize our friendship so intentionally, so perfectly, that we will no longer spend time on our real life relationship but can continue to interact online?

Next, somebody I know decently well intentionally blocked me on Twitter. Being blocked, I had assumed, was a mistaken flick of a wrist, so I candidly, and with no malice, inquired as to why I was being treated as tweeter non grata.

As it turns out, the person that had blocked me was going through a virtual existential crisis of their own. For survival or therapy, this person had culled their very small list of followers to an even smaller list, consisting only of people that this Tweeter felt had not crossed the lines that they were now imposing on their followers.

This person had halved their small followers list, and I had landed on the chopping block, despite having never crossed any of the lines that had been laid out. They had jumped the gun. I was invited back. Unblocked.

But the damage, to my ego and to our friendship, was done. This person’s instinct was to lump me in with the expendables. The unwanteds.

This person was an old-school blogging friend to me, somebody that had accepted my hospitality and whose family had shared dinner at my family's table.

Yes, I was hurt.

I refused the offer to become a follower again. I removed this person from my Facebook profile, because, in my order of things, if you do not want me on Twitter, the most impersonal, most inclusive of social media, than I certainly do not want you on Facebook, where you are privy to my more personal interactions.

In both of these instances I am trying to reconcile the order in which I prioritize relationships with the order in which they prioritize theirs.

I am trying, but failing, to find a place where the real life connection is so easily discounted and the online becomes a place to ignore, bolster or dissolve the real.

I can’t do it. And I am totally flummoxed that it is happening. Perhaps we simply deal with conflict in different ways. Perhaps conflict has become a more complicated, layered thing in the world of social media 2.0.

In both of these instances, the real life portion of the connection seems to be the disposable thing, the part that was not cherished or cultivated, the energy siphoned from the real to the virtual, where, it seems, fences are broken and mended at the click of a mouse.

I can’t do it. As much as I am a creature of the internal, safe, glowing screen, I am more a creature of the light. I need to know where I stand with people and get confused by passive-aggressive actions.

Sometimes, it’s easy. Sometimes we exchange virtual business cards or a laugh at a conference and then enjoy the simple space we take up in each other’s online life.

And sometimes the lines become more blurred; our relationships become harder to contain, harder to compartmentalize. We begin to see people simply as chattel, as numbers, as lists, to be contracted or expanded according to whim or want.

I just cannot allow myself to remain on someone’s list when my place in their life seems to have already been culled.

Karen is the author of the blog, The Kids Are Alright

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