Unfriending Ethics

Bill Cammack & Kathleen Grace
Egregious photo of myself with Kathleen! 😀

Social Media is insanely skewed towards positive feedback. Because of this, a stigma is attached to negative feedback, regardless of how truthful that feedback is. People are literally AFRAID to say or type ANYTHING that they might be criticized for… by ANYONE… which necessarily and obviously creates a disingenuous society.

Put another way… As long as you’re being nice to people, you can say whatever you want. As soon as you’re not being nice… TO ANYBODY… you’re out of bounds. As long as everyone agrees with everyone, there’s lots of above-board chatter and clinking of glasses. As soon as someone disagrees, the chatter moves to the back-channel. The criticism or negative belief thrives behind the scenes, it’s just that there’s no trace of it in the same places where there’s a ton of positive feedback.

Keep It To Yourself

For example, I attended a flashmeeting one time (an internet-based meeting where people communicate with each other via webcam and “pass the mic” back and forth to each other) which was called in order to “critique” people’s website ideas. People were ASKED to attend this meeting and give their [honest] opinions about what they saw/heard/read. One of the first people to speak didn’t like the implementation of the site in question and proceeded to say so. This person was not being harsh or demeaning at all. They were saying what they thought was WACK (not good) about the site and what they felt the person needed to improve on.

In what was most likely the middle of their comment, they suddenly disappeared from my screen, and the moderator appeared. The person’s video and audio was cut off entirely. The moderator then went on to explain to all of us that we were here to offer POSITIVE feedback about the sites and then said, without actually saying it, that if we had anything other than that to say, keep it to ourselves.

The rest of the meeting contained only positive feedback. I thought at the time, and still think that it was incredibly retarded to call a meeting to critique things and then OUTLAW any criticism that might make the site creator feel badly. If your site SUCKS, it SUCKS. Period. If there are things you can improve on, it’s in your best interest to hear it before you continue down the wrong path, at least in that particular person’s eyes. So even in cases where the comments are beneficial to you, just about nobody’s going to say anything that might be interpreted as “negative”.


This, by the way, is what makes linkbaiters popular yet infamous. They say things that everybody was already thinking, but nobody was willing to say. People like to subscribe to linkbaiters on the internet the same way a crowd forms around a fight, IRL. If they had to throw their own hands and risk getting punched in the face, they’d run away, screaming.. But since someone else is fighting, they’re perfectly willing to get as close as possible to watch, ooh, aah and cheer for a good beatdown. People have built entire sites around this concept and have become moderately popular inside the fishbowl / echo chamber because of it.

So, essentially, unless people are willing to carry the stigma of being labeled an internet villain, they’re not going to say ANYTHING negative about ANYBODY, *evAr*!… Unfortunately, this behavior spills over into their personal relationships and makes people incredibly disingenuous when it comes to unfriending people.

Living in Public

One of the side effects of Living in Public is that to some degree, everyone knows your business. They don’t know all of your business, but they know enough to make judgments. I have the unique position of knowing a lot of people… I mean A LOT of people. Not “know them” as in I’ve seen them around on the internet and we clicked “accept” on friend invites, but that I’ve actually physically hung out with these people and we’ve developed whatever relationships we’ve developed during that time. Right now, for instance, I have 1,367 Facebook Friends and 586 of them live in my town, New York City. This means that I could hang out with a different person every single day for way more than a full year without repeating people. JUST in this town, and JUST from the people I know from Facebook.

An issue that arises from this situation is that you end up making the acquaintance of people that have problems with each other. Some of them started out as friends, and probably even introduced you to their friend at the time, and now they’re enemies. They’d never actually USE the word “enemy”, though, due to the aforementioned stigma, so they’ll just say they’re “not friends”. That’s all well and good until people start contacting you on the back channel, asking you why you’re still friends with XYZ after they did ABC to whomever. Then, if you refuse to hop on the bandwagon for something that isn’t your problem AT. ALL., the person that was *JUST* begging you to get down with their program gets mad at YOU for “choosing the offending person over them”.


One popular way for people to deal with these situations is to become the pathetically-termed, yet insanely funny “Frenemies” (an enemy disguised as a friend). This concept came up in a conversation I was having with a friend and I thought she had made it up herself. I didn’t realize that people actually do this. I figured that people that had a problem with each other would just say so, agree to disagree and let that be that. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the political cascade that would occur if, for instance, two people that work with each other every day proclaimed that they were now rivals, to whatever degree.

Due to the “Whose side are you on?” nature of the echo chamber, camps would develop inside that office and then resonate extermally throughout their entire social set. In order to avoid this, these people pretend to still be friends while they talk about the other person “behind their backs” on the back channel. It’s not actually behind their backs though, because since everyone knows everyone else’s business, everyone knows they’re enemies, but everyone ALSO knows to play it off as if they’re not during IRL hangouts and especially in anything they write on the internet.

Hide in Plain Sight

Bre Pettis & Bill Cammack
Keep it up! You’re about to be unfriended. [Bre and Bill]

This behavior also extends to individual relationships that aren’t in any kind of spotlight. If you’re on Twitter, for instance, there’s a site you can go to called Qwitter that will email you if someone stops following you and tell you when it happened. I’ve also had people tell me that they noticed that their Facebook friends count went down by one since the day before and wonder who it was that “quit” them. Clearly, that would be impossible for me to figure out with > 1,300 Facebook friends, but it’s still an interesting question… “Who unfriended me, and why?”

Unfortunately, due to the nature of our surrounding environment, it’s better for people to attempt to slither away, unnoticed, than for them to say “I didn’t like that you did or said XYZ, so I don’t want to be your 1,367th Facebook Friend anymore!” If they were to tell you what they didn’t like, you’d then have the ammunition to disseminate throughout the back channel, “Would you believe that XYZ unfriended me because of ABC?”, so it’s in their best interest not to say anything to you at all and just hope you didn’t notice.

Another style is to not unfriend the person at all… merely refuse to respond. This is a tricky one, because a) people become really busy as we’re trying to do what we’re trying to do on the internet, all day, every day, and b) I know personally that I get so much correspondence that I just can’t / won’t respond to everything or else all I’d do is answer emails every day. When someone’s paying me to answer my own emails all day, that’s what I’ll do. Until then, that’s not how we’re livin’.

This is a pretty good technique for people that don’t live in the same town and socialize in the same circles. For people that DO.. The jig is up when y’all run into each other in person. As soon as your unfriendly demeanor is determined, it’s *YOU* that might get unfriended, as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and everything else remains within arm’s reach on my G1.

So… ARE there ethics to unfriending people? SHOULD there be? COULD there be? Personally, I don’t believe there can be, because our culture is skewed towards hiding and talking behind people’s backs instead of attempting to resolve differences that arise between us.

What do you think?

~ Bill Cammack

Twitter: BillCammack
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