Future Tense

The Facebook Cleanse

Happy birthday! I’m unfriending you, stranger.

A Facebook spring cleaning.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Shutterstock and Facebook.

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 completely useless to me. The signal-to-noise ratio was way too low. 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 my ass—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!!!!!1!! 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. It takes about 10 seconds a day, and it’s totally worth it.

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.

I hope they feel no slight; I certainly feel none at their indifference to me. Not all friendships last forever. That’s the way friendship once worked in a world without online communities; if you moved away or got a new job, only the most durable of the related friendships survived. If you lost interest in a person—or if she lost interest in you—the relationship ended. Perhaps you sent each other holiday cards. But you didn’t send each other cards every day, which is what being friends with a nonfriend on Facebook feels like.

Once we were, perhaps, actual friends. We shared some good times in Inwood or Honolulu or the other places I’ve lived. But we’ve drifted apart, through no fault of anyone’s, and though we remember each other fondly (perhaps), we are no longer actual friends. One day in the future many of my newer Facebook friends—the Virginia neighbors and Slate co-workers—will no longer be actual friends. Some of them, no doubt, will stick, just as some have stuck from Inwood and Honolulu and high school and that job I never should have taken at 27. We’ll stay close. But most of them will fall away. Eventually we will all die, and one day the Earth, a barren, blasted rock, will be consumed by our exploding sun.

Anyway, Facebook’s a lot better now. Once it felt like a stadium packed full of strangers yelling at each other. Now it feels more like a cocktail party. My lifelong friends and current co-workers mingle with the best and most interesting of my high-school pals and online buddies. We all mean something to each other. I visit Facebook more often, and its clever algorithms are working hard to show me more interesting things by the friends I care about the most.

So if you’re suffering from friend clutter, try a one-year Facebook cleanse. It’ll make your online experience a lot cleaner, better, more meaningful. And if your birthday’s coming soon and we met once at a concert: Heads up. I might be about to give you the greatest birthday gift I, a person about whom you don’t give a crap, can offer: the gift of never needing to think about me again.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.