Toward the end of our friendship, things between Abigail* and I deteriorated rapidly. While I had stood by her as she endured a tumultuous three-year relationship, when it was my turn to nurse a broken heart, her patience wore thin. We both had fashion blogs, which added an undercurrent of competition to our relationship. And in the final three months, we avoided each other with excuses about busy schedules. On IM, a misconstrued joke led to bickering, followed by an apology that soothed nobody’s feelings. Our relationship was so damaged that one more crack, however superficial, threatened to break it.
That last straw came when I found a snarky comment from Abigail on a blog post about buying expensive handbags. I saw it as yet another uninvited judgment of my choices and became furious. I deleted her contact info from my phone, MSN, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Abigail had my number and email, but she never reached out to me in the ensuing weeks to question my silence. I thought maybe we were both relieved to be rid of the constant arguing.
A couple of months after the deletions, we passed each other on the street without acknowledging one another. Two hours later she tweeted, “Was that you I saw walking by the downtown library? Sorry I didn’t recognize you!” Her tweet read more like an excuse for not saying hi than an olive branch. Months after that, she gushed, “Good eye, Lisa!” under a comment I left on someone else’s blog, sounding as though we’d just shared cocktails the night before instead of being virtual strangers. Whether her online comments were nasty or nice, I had no control over her actions.
Many social media users exist in a utopian bubble, twitpic-ing their lunches or blogging about H&M’s latest designer collaboration. But where there is social interaction, there is potential for social conflict. And an off-line fight can affect online lives if the disagreement’s spillover isn’t kept in check.
After all, the same urge to vent that used to drive us to coffee chats and long phone conversations now sends us to our laptops. An irate Facebook exchange or YouTube tirade may reflect emotions in the heat of the moment, but once those emotions fade, the evidence of the outburst is there for all to see. What’s worse, it lives on in public memory—cached, indexed, archived and searchable. A message to a frenemy could go viral, making you an Internet laughing stock, or come back to haunt you at your next job interview.
Tanya*, a 28-year-old marketing manager in Ottawa, discovered exactly how social media can worsen an already bad situation when she ended her friendship with business partner Lorelai*. They founded an online magazine together, but it wasn’t long before Tanya felt she was doing the brunt of the work and resenting it. After she asked Lorelai to take over some of her responsibilities, Lorelai left the work undone and avoided Tanya’s emails and phone calls. Whenever Tanya would confront her, they’d argue. Then Lorelai did the inexcusable: She hacked into Tanya’s email, read her messages and changed the password to lock out Tanya.
Tanya recovered her email, but she immediately dissolved the partnership, stopped speaking to Lorelai and unfriended her on Facebook. The situation worsened when Lorelai noticed Tanya’s substantial blog and Twitter following and quickly set up her own. Mutual friends, seeing this online activity, asked Tanya whether they were competing with each other. What began as a falling out between two individuals became Facebook gossip fodder. Tanya was stressed by prying questions and felt like she was living under a microscope. “It makes it even more awkward because it’s online, it’s so public, and then you see that group of people in real life, and everyone’s just like ‘Oh, what happened with you guys?’ I just found that [social media] blew everything out of proportion,” she says.
When a friendship becomes as dysfunctional as Tanya and Lorelai’s, it might be best to move on. “In some extreme cases, you may need to erase as much of her social media footprint from your life as you can,” says Irene S. Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, and advice guru behind thefriendshipblog.com. “You have no reason to keep her on Facebook or LinkedIn and would be better off with a clean cut.”
Still, hitting delete on your relationship isn’t always an option. Maybe your friend also happens to be a valuable contact, or she’s a co-worker or a neighbour. Perhaps you decide the good memories outweigh the bad. Unfriending is fraught with significance. “These types of interactions are producing real human emotions,” says Peter Chow-White, assistant professor of communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “We’re living out some of our anxieties, some of our feelings of insecurity, our professional accomplishments, through the act of friending or following or connecting or disconnecting.”
Experts say the best way to reconcile is to keep conflicts off-line. In face-to-face communication, body language and tone help solve problems by minimizing misinterpretation, says Raj Dhasi, lead conflict resolution consultant with Turning Point Resolutions in Vancouver. Online, “we miss out on all those nuances that would tell us here’s what the person’s message actually meant, so we’re left to assume what the meaning of the message is,” she explains. Depending on the listener’s state
of mind, the message’s original meaning can easily be skewed. “If I have to assume the meaning of your message, then it goes through my filters, and it goes through my emotional response, and if I’m not having a good day, I could very easily misread.”
Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, agrees. “If you read something on your friend’s blog or Facebook feed that upsets you, don’t send her an email, don’t leave her a comment. Maybe sleep on it to calm down. But call her, then get together and talk about it with her—face to face.”
Can’t bear a confrontation? There’s always the “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Samuel recommends hiding upsetting activity from those whom you’re not ready to unfriend. On Facebook, click the upper right-hand corner of a news feed item to conceal it or to unsubscribe from that person’s updates altogether. For your own updates, create a Facebook share list that includes everyone but your former pal. You can also use a third-party app such as TweetDeck to block her dispatches. Regardless of which approach you choose, it’s always a good idea to think before you tweet. Online feuds often escalate because of our tendency to post something before we’ve thought about what we’re actually saying. Try incorporating a “pause” into your social media routine: Instead of replying immediately, give yourself time and space, and then compose a thoughtful rather than inflammatory answer. Better yet, delay your response and find a way to take the conversation off-line.
Dhasi and Samuel’s advice made me wonder about my own response: Had I discarded Abigail’s friendship too hastily? I don’t think so. While I regret the way I ended things, I don’t regret ending them. I don’t miss the emotionally draining petty dramas or repeated attempts to fix something that remained stubbornly broken. Ending our friendship was ultimately the healthier option. I hope that Abigail, wherever she is, feels the same way.
*name has been changed