Does anyone else sometimes flinch when using the word “friend” to describe people you’re connected with on Facebook?

When I left the corporate world to try to pursue writing and be home with the boys, there was an immediate decline in my Facebook friends list. I was shocked at first, wondering why old co-workers were so quick to unfriend me, a social change I had not prepared for when planning my escape. It was quite clear they had no interest in my life, especially now that work wasn’t forcing us to connect.

This by-product of an already enormous life change resulted in me spending way too much time thinking about how many interactions we have in our life that are purely surface-level. It’s common to become friends on Facebook with co-workers or even those you randomly meet, a modern-day business card exchange. But why do we do it?

Sometimes it’s a genuine curiosity to get to know someone else better. Sometimes it’s an obligation. Sometimes it’s for other self-seeking intentions.

I’ve been on Facebook ever since it first rolled out, so my list of friends encompasses every part of my continually changing life from the past fourteen years. If I took the time to go through it, there would be people I’d pass on the street and never know that we were friends on Facebook. Or, like another recent scenario, a colleague from a community organization that I haven’t seen in two years, and we didn’t even stop at the grocery store to say more than “hi” to each other before continuing on our way. Not out of rudeness, but it was as though a mutual understanding that we just didn’t have anything else to say to each other.

“Friend” has been transformed from its true definition ever since Facebook rolled into town. For all you Myer-Briggs fans, I’m an INFJ so clearly appreciate close friendships which is why this could be a sensitive note for me. I don’t throw the term around easily. For me, a friend is someone I genuinely care about or have an interest in supporting. So I do flinch if I have to say “friend” for someone that’s simply a connection on Facebook, but I’d have no clue what to talk about if we were thrown together at a table suddenly to converse in person.

Someone may argue that the friend term used by Facebook should be taken loosely and not so literal, and I understand that. But the use of friend is exactly why being unfriended can hit such a sensitive note. Friend naturally suggests an intimacy between two people which is why being unfriended can feel like a jolt of rejection. If our friends on Facebook were called “connections” and someone disconnected us, the emotional ties wouldn’t be quite as severe.

When Facebook released the ability to unfollow people without unfriending them, that’s when I began to question the point of our Facebook connections if it wasn’t to actually be connected with friends. If we don’t want to see anything that someone has to post about their life, should we really be connected with them?

Ever since I left the corporate world, the meaning of relationships has changed for me. The screening through social media of those relationships is a luxury I have now, though. If you receive connection requests from the people you work with, it’s not exactly easy to hit the decline button while knowing you’re going to see them the next day. Despite the supposed “personal” aspect of our social media accounts, there’s still the ongoing pressures that challenge them from being what we may wish they could be. I suppose that’s why the “unfollow” option on Facebook is so convenient. You can accept requests that you would otherwise like to decline, then immediately unfollow them because it lets you pretend that you’re not connected at all. It’s just another way Facebook is deprecating the meaning of what a friend is.

If you unfollow someone, you might as well unfriend them. You won’t see anything they have to post anyway so what’s the point of staying connected? If this happened back in the “olden days” (talking corded and flip phone eras) when phone calls had to be made to maintain friendships, it would be like your friend blocking your number because they no longer want to hear what you have to say. Now it’s just done in sneakier manners.

I could have been hurt from this obvious rejection that came from people I once would have called my work friends. And maybe I was at first. But this is the truth I’ve found: if I don’t mean anything to you, please do unfriend me. Honestly, I should probably go through my list and do the same. Facebook should have a notification when this happens, a clear indicator that this person is no longer interested in anything that involves your life. But social media isn’t exactly concerned with the quality of our personal relationships, only about quantifying our lives through the number of connections we have and likes on our posts. What I’m proposing contradicts that concept because it’s based on relationship transparency — murky water for social media.

Everyone’s choice for how they handle their social media accounts greatly vary. For me, Facebook is the one platform I wish could be more intimate. Besides, it chose “friends,” not “followers” or “connections” to how we refer to those we are linked with. Unfriending those you aren’t invested in or who aren’t invested in your life (either through genuine care, interest, or support) should be easily accepted, and not taken as such an insult. What kind of value exists in feeling obligated to remain connected with someone? That’s not fair to anyone.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I no longer have the energy for forged relationships. Since it’s too late for Facebook to change the use of “friends,” changing how we view “unfriended” is needed. Unfriended shouldn’t be such a bitter-filled word, but rather embraced as an honest status indicator for the true state of our connections and relationships as life moves forward.