"Un-Friending" On Facebook: Harsh — Or Necessary?

Burger King's bizarre “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign — which offered a free burger if you unfriended ten Facebook friends — has started a debate about the etiquette of giving people the online axe.

While Burger King's recent attempts at surreal edginess — "Whopper Virgins," anyone? — aren't going to raise many eyebrows, the fact that "Whopper Sacrifice" involved a notification that you'd been cut for a burger caught Facebook's attention: as everyone knows, people aren't normally told when you un-friend them, one of the few things that keeps the delicate ecosystem functioning. And, not unexpectedly, the scrutiny has opened something of a philosophical can of worms: what is a "friend?" Should you cull ruthlessly, or be generous? And what's the protocol? Justifies a marketer behind "Whopper Sacrifice" to the NY Times, “It seemed to us that it quickly evolved from quality of friends to quantity...which was interesting to us because it felt like the virtual definition of a friend became something different than the friends that you’d want to hang out with.”

Well, yeah. Nowadays those who keep their lists down to an exclusive circle of real friends are in the minority; even if you don't solicit friends yourself you're likely to be found by random elementary-school classmates or old coworkers — and it seems unkind to deny someone who's taken the time to search you out! Most people I know maintain an "everyone within reason" policy and have resigned themselves to distancing Facebook from anything truly personal. And among people under 20, it's standard for "friend" lists to top 300. Some folks I know feel somewhat misled; at first they accepted all requests because they felt honored; now, a year later, they see these relationships as reflections of a culture's diminishing currency.

And then the editing starts. Some Facebook expert tells the Times he "recommends culling your friend list once a year to remove total strangers and other hangers-on. Keeping your numbers down gives you more leeway to be selective about whom you approve in the first place." Part of the rationale for this discrimination is that, as a piece in today's Wall Street Journal makes clear, sites like Facebook are increasingly prone to hacking. "The popularity of social networks and social media sites has grabbed the attention of cyber crooks searching to pilfer passwords, called "phishing," and steal sensitive personal information. The hackers are exploiting users' sense of safety within these sites," and a smaller network could mean, hypothetically, a smaller risk.

But, at this juncture, is such an approach really practical? Whatever people wanted Facebook to be, now isn't it what it is: less a portrait of who you are than a loosely-drawn map of your history, your interests, your associations? Does anyone go to someone else's page expecting to see only bosom friends? No: for the most part you assume you're seeing a collection of friends, acquaintances and strangers, and we've become as adept at reading and interpreting these as a more straight-forward breakdown. If you want privacy, quite frankly, don't join a networking site anymore. As to unfriending, I get it, but it does seem to me a tad cowardly: much more honest, it seems, to reject someone in the first place. Whopper or not.

Friends, Until I Delete You [New York Times]

Beware of Facebook 'Friends' Who May Trash Your Laptop
[Wall Street Journal]