Kara Alaimo: We should definitely trim our Facebook friends list
Hitting the unfriend button shouldn't be about political differences, she writes
Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Jimmy Kimmel named November 17 National Unfriend Day. The comedian said we should all go on Facebook and unfriend people who aren’t really our friends. Many of us have so many Facebook friends, he said, that we couldn’t possibly be close with all of them.
How should we decide who gets the cut? That’s easy. When Kimmel launched the initiative back in 2010, he said, “Let’s say, on Friday, post a status update that says, ‘I’m moving this weekend and I need help.’ The people that respond? Those are your friends. Everyone else isn’t.”
Last year on National Unfriend Day, people posted lots of offenses that caused them to unfriend people – for example, posting content that was gross (pictures of their feet) or annoying (presents from their boyfriends).
These days, some people are also hitting the unfriend button over political disagreements. One month after the 2016 presidential election, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 13% of people reported unfriending, blocking or no longer following someone because of political posts.
Democrats were most likely to do so: almost 24% of Dems reported giving people the ax, blocking or unfollowing them over political posts, compared to 9% of Republicans and 9% of independents. That’s generally a bad idea, though, because it creates what author, activist and Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser calls “filter bubbles.” This is when we only consume content and talk to others who already agree with our ideologies.
Some may think that given the current sociopolitical climate, it’s better to avoid those who have alternate points of view. This isn’t necessarily the case. Americans won’t be able to solve our deep divisions without engaging with people we disagree with.
But there are more important reasons why we should trim our Facebook friend lists. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, the average number of friends that adult Facebook users have is 338. Do we really have that many real friends? Probably not.
But our Facebook friends can do us a great deal of harm in the real world. They can use the information we share about ourselves to cause us devastating physical, emotional and financial pain.
First, many of us allow our friends to post directly to our Facebook pages. This means we should only be friends with people who we’re certain have the judgment not to post inappropriate or unflattering things. Just ask Lindsey Stone, whose “friend” posted an image of her making an obscene gesture at Arlington National Cemetery in 2012. The picture caused so much outrage that someone created a “Fire Lindsey Stone” page, which garnered thousands of likes. Stone’s life was shattered. She lost her job, stopped trying to go on dates and didn’t leave home for almost a year, Stone told Jon Ronson from the Guardian.
Second, “friends” who don’t care about you could screenshot and share your posts with people who definitely aren’t your friends. Even seemingly innocuous posts, when used in the right circumstances, can be devastating.
For example, in their just-released book “Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate,” Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr warn that that an ex could ask one of your mutual “friends” to share what you post on Facebook. “Too many parents involved in custody battles have found that seemingly small things, like a Facebook photo of themselves with a drink in hand … have been allowed into evidence as an example of poor character” in courts, the authors report.
Third, it’s scary that false friends could use Facebook to figure out where we are at all times. Those awesome vacation shots you just posted? They could signal to burglars that you’re away from home.
Are you worried yet? There’s more. Fake friends can also steal our identities and passwords. Remember that meme that was going around Facebook in April, where people posted the names of 10 concerts they claimed to have attended and asked their friends to guess which one was a lie? Cyber experts warned that a common question banks and other institutions use to verify our identities is the first concert we attended. So, anyone who saw what you posted could use the information to try to hack your accounts.
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Of course, we need to be careful about what we post in the first place. For instance, even if we only posted information to our true friends, our accounts – or theirs – could be hacked or reviewed by law enforcement officials. But it’s also important that we only share personal information with people who we’re confident wouldn’t try to use it to hurt us.
Your Facebook friends don’t all have to help you move – or vote like you – but you should be confident that they wouldn’t want to intentionally cause you any physical, emotional or financial harm. Can you really ensure that if you have over 300 people on your friends list?