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‘Unfriending’ in an increasingly social world

tom_honig_sMaybe it doesn’t get noticed as much as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” but for my money, the best yearly honor comes out in November from the New Oxford American Dictionary. It’s the lexicographers’ “word of the year.”

Of course 2009 is the year of social media, so it stands to reason that it would come from there. And it does. The word? “Unfriend.”

How beautiful. An antisocial term in a world of social media. Here’s the explanation  from the dictionary’s blog: “UNFRIEND – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social site such as Facebook. As in – “I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook after we had a fight.”

Editors argue that most “un-“ words are adjectives, and that the people use “unfriend” as a verb more than they use “friend.” That kind of popular usage gives “unfriend” more “lex appeal,” as Oxford’s editors put it.

If this unfriending is a trend, then I’m not part of it. Sounds wimpy, but I have yet to unfriend anyone. I did briefly remove my girlfriend’s picture from my computer wallpaper once, but sheepishly returned it when she found out.

The bigger issue is this: to what extent is social media taking over our lives? The art form of the letter is as quaint today as taking a surrey to an ice-cream social. One of the great literary art forms is the “Collected letters of …” but don’t expect to see any new authors with such a collection. And the “Collected Facebook posts of …” won’t have the same gravitas.

Newspapers, of course, are dealing with the rise of social media by starting up blogs and even posting entries onto personal Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. But I’m not sure that I want to be friends with people just because they cover the news. I like news to be impersonal. I like knowing that someone else may be reading what I’m reading in a distant, impersonal way. It’s why I still like to watch the network news every evening. It’s distant, impersonal and there’s a chance that a few million other people that I’ve never met are watching the same thing. There’s something comforting in that.

Another disconcerting, unsocial aspect of social media happens all the time around town. It used to be that I’d run into friends and the entire conversation would be filled with news about their latest trips, their newest hobbies, their recent personal stories. Now I already know what people have been up to, especially those who post and repost their status. After someone tweets about going sailing or attending a family reunion, I already know all about it. Talk about a conversation killer.

But most media socialites don’t feel that way. UCSC grad David Gleason describes social media as “a television station that only reports on your friends and family. How interesting would this be: “Honig arrested; news starts right now.”

Food writer Donna Maurillo likes the economics of it: “My phone bill is almost zero. Social networking keeps me connected and organized.”

And maybe the best one, from journalist Brian Seals: “It kills time when one should be working.”

Another journalist, Lila LaHood, is partial to Twitter as an aggregator. “The people I like following the most are really good linkers—they point me to fascinating articles and research I probably wouldn’t find on my own.”

One of the most adept at explaining the advantages of social media is local journalist and social media consultant Karen Kefauver, whose writing career now extends to teaching people the ins and outs of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like.

Her take on it all starts here: “The biggest commodity of the future is the human attention span.”

She says: “It’s all about making connections, for business and for fun. The value of mixing and mingling online is the same as attending a social mixer in person. It’s an opportunity to discover common interests, build a community and yes, make sales.”

She argues that social media companies will come and go—but that the one-on-one connection is here to stay. “What remains is human nature—that means ‘friending’ will always include the ‘unfriending’ option.”

But I still think it’s an irony that in the year of social media that “unfriending” is the word of the year. That means there’s still hope for the committed anti-socials out there.

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