News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 15, 2014

The joy of losing friends on Facebook

WASHINGTON — Did I just unfriend you? I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. But I'm not sorry I did it. In fact, I did you a favor. I'm on a Facebook cleanse, and it's making me fall back in love with the social network I couldn't stand for years. You should do it, too!

For years, I'd been frustrated that Facebook felt useless to me. The signal-to-noise ratio was way too high. I was a victim, of course, of my years of promiscuous friending and friend-accepting. I'd long been an easy lay on Facebook: If I met you at a reading or worked with you or emailed with you or laughed at your comments on someone else's Facebook post, I'd send a friend request; if you sent a friend request to me, I'd accept, unless you were a fake Serbian teen whose posts all read "I'm lonely ;) click here for more." After all, wasn't the point of Facebook to forge connections with friends old and new, near and far?

Sure, in theory. But in practice it meant my feed was overwhelmed by randos: publicists I'd met at parties years before, comedians with whom I'd shared stages in 2004, siblings of high school classmates, readers I'd friended or accepted friend requests from in hopes of Building My Brand. Oh, it's that former co-worker who was always a pain in the rear — how nice that she took a vacation to Bali! Wow, that guy who was a senior my freshman year sure has a lot of kids!

Facebook lets you hide friends from your feed, of course, or create "lists" representing different kinds of relationships, and I did — but the very fact that we were "friends" stuck in my craw. Why were we "friends"? We weren't friends. I felt certain that as annoying as I found their family photos and political gripes and Upworthy links, they found mine just as pointless. They didn't care about me any more than I cared about them!

But the idea of going through my Facebook friends one by one and judging their worth seemed both onerous and callous. What am I, too good for them? Also, who has the time?

Then one day I opened up Facebook and noticed that I had seven friends with birthdays. I wished a good work pal happy birthday! I wished an old college roommate happy birthday! And then I hovered over the next name in the list, a person I'd encountered during an informational coffee in 2006. I remembered that she seemed perfectly nice but that neither of us made any impression on the other. I didn't care about this woman. I didn't want to wish her a happy birthday!!!! or a happy birthday!!; even typing happy birthday seemed like too much. If she wished me a happy birthday, I'd think, This person couldn't care less about me.

Reader, I unfriended her.

The quick burst of guilt I felt was immediately replaced by a wave of relief. It was so easy! And now we were out of each other's feeds forever. I unfriended a couple of other tangential acquaintances on the birthday list, wished a happy birthday to my best friend from high school, and signed off feeling like a new man. I'd cut my friends list from 1,642 to a much more manageable 1,639.

The next morning, I did it again. And my great Facebook cleanse began.

It turns out that the Facebook birthday alert, located at the top of the site's news feed, doubles as an incredibly efficient way to cull your friends list. Every day I am presented with two or five or eight friends who have nothing in common with one another but the date of their births. One by one I go through them and ask myself: Do I actually want to wish this person a happy birthday? Would this person care if I didn't wish him a happy birthday? Does this person mean enough to me to be worth engaging in the barest minimum of niceties?

If so, great. If not: unfriend. No worrying about whether I might alienate a career contact or sever my fake connection to a now-famous person or hurt a fellow Tar Heel's feelings.

I'm about nine months into my Facebook cleanse, and I'm down — after a couple of satisfying unfriendings this morning — to 1,079 friends, a 34 percent reduction. Of course that's still far more "friends" than I have actual friends, probably by a factor of 10. But sometimes I miss a day. And some people haven't listed their birthdays on Facebook. And I've learned over the past nine months that there are people whom I've never met — people with whom I've only ever had online interactions — whose virtual friendships I treasure, or at least enjoy enough to wish them a happy birthday. So they make the cut. But plenty of others do not.

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