About three and a half months ago I very quietly began my own social media experiment to see if Facebook, which was supposed to bring people together, was actually keeping some of my friends away from me. All of this came about because one of my close friends (Friend A) ran into one of my other friends who I don’t see that often (Friend B). Somehow I came up in the course of the conversation, and Friend A realized that Friend B talked about me like we hung out all the time, but all he was doing was repeating things he had read in my Facebook status updates. It got me thinking – how many other friends were doing the same things? Was staying friends with them on Facebook just enabling this behavior so we never saw each other face to face? Was my friendship just being collected like a trading card so people could have a higher friend number and feel better about themselves? And had Facebook become such an ingrained part of society that if I de-friended them in the virtual world would it have an actual effect on our friendship in the real world?
I debated those questions for about a week and decided that I needed to know the answers. Just to be clear, I wasn’t doing this to be mean-spirited, and I realized that I was completely responsible for owning 50% of the relationship that had fallen into disrepair. But I wanted to try to have more meaningful friendships in my life and fewer purely virtual ones. I knew it was going to be a hard process, and I might have to explain my actions to some of these people so I needed to have a consistent set of rules that would help me make my decisions. As I was working out the rules, I decided the best thing would be to keep it simple. So the two rules I used were:
1 – I had to have been friends with you on Facebook for more than a year.
2 – I had to have had some meaningful exchange with you in the past year, and I broke that down to subgroups. If you live near me, then we had to have gone out to at least one lunch, dinner or talked something meaningful for more than 15 minutes in the past year. If you live far away then we had to have had at least 2 meaningful email exchanges in the past year. If you work with me than we had to have done something outside of work like lunch, dinner, drinks or something at least once in the past year.
I thought it was a fair way to make the decisions and I honestly felt it kept the bar pretty low to stay on my friend’s list. When I applied those rules to my nearly 225 Facebook friends, it meant I was going to de-friend just under 100 of them. I was shocked by the fact that so many of my friends couldn’t meet those basic criteria and it only strengthened my resolve that this needed to happen. I bit the bullet, gave the ax to everyone on the list and sat back to wait for the reaction.
In the three and a half months since I started this experiment I have honestly again been shocked by the response – or actually the lack there of.
95% of the people on that list had no response at all. They never noticed, emailed, IM’d or called to ask me why we weren’t friends anymore. I can only conclude that for that group we had become acquaintances who had a connection at some point in our lives but Facebook had created a false sense of meaningful connection and friendship.
3% caught on to me pretty much immediately and got in touch to ask what had happened. I was honest with them about why I did it and I didn’t take the ‘I don’t know why we aren’t friends anymore. It must have been a Facebook error” road. I am very happy to say that for that group we have seen a lot more of each other, and it was a wake-up call that brought us back together.
2% caught on at some point later in that 3 1/2 month period and asked me what happened. Again I was honest with them but they mainly just wanted to be friends again on Facebook and not make any real change.
I am curious to see if those numbers will stay the same now that I have made this experiment public. A large percentage of that group who got the ax read my blog on a regular basis and are probably racing to Facebook to see if they were on the list.
I have put a lot of thought into what I learned from all of this and what insights we can take from it. I started with once again embracing the fact that my creative process uses personal experiences to create professional insights and work. This was an experiment that clearly took place in my personal life but the insight I walked away with reinforces something I already knew from my professional like. Any digital community only has real value if the connections created by that community are real and have real value to the people participating in it. If those connections are so thin that they are at best passive participation that goes unnoticed when they are broken then no matter how many people are part of that community it is meaningless. It will never have an effect, it will never communicate anything and it will only exist to serve the community creator and not the community itself.
If you are feeling brave try this experiment for yourself to see what results you get and if the same conclusion holds true. No matter what the outcome hopefully it will help you reconnect with old friends in the real world and have a conversation that does start with a form field that reads “What’s on your mind?”.