Forecaster Forum: At times like this, you really need an unfriend

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My mother repeatedly tells me Facebook is evil, and I’m starting to believe her.

I am referring to Facebook, a “social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them.” I defended my Facebook use by declaring the site keeps me “connected” and “in touch” with people I otherwise wouldn’t – and what’s so bad about that? I am beginning to find out exactly what.

I joined Facebook in spring of 2004, as a sophomore in college, thinking “Fun! This will be a great way to stay in touch with all my high school friends who attend colleges throughout the country!” Indeed, it was amusing to browse through ridiculous photos of my college peers at fraternity parties, or stalk the new cute guy seen across the quad, or notice the <3 (heart) symbol when someone’s relationship status was updated to “in a relationship” or “engaged.” But, as I enter what could possibly be the “quarter-life crisis” phase of my life, it is this last feature that makes me want to give Facebook a big, thumbs-down.

Logging into Facebook the day after Thanksgiving, I found that the first love of my life and former boyfriend of five years “is engaged.” I don’t know if I reacted so strongly out of disbelief that he is engaged to be married to someone else, while the only engagements I have these days are phlebotomy workshops and cancer lectures, or if it was because I found out about it in such a sterile way, on Facebook, along with the rest of his 656 “friends.”

I have always been a proponent of the “let’s be friends” philosophy; no reason why the end of a romantic relationship means the end of a friendship, too. But remaining “Facebook friends” after a break-up has an entirely different meaning. Not only will everyone see the broken heart next to my status telling all of my friends “Kate is no longer in a relationship,” but now I am constantly reminded that my ex is moving on without me.

I know it’s not just me who is struggling with the “to be or not to be Facebook friends with the ex-boyfriend” issue. I had 12 girlfriends over for dinner last weekend, and they all shared similar sentiments. Do we need to see pictures (through teary and bloodshot eyes) of our ex-boyfriends running a half-marathon the day after he broke up with us, looking fit and unaffected by emotion? Do we need to know when our former significant others start dating others, or to view the photos of their first getaway weekend together? Or when they get engaged, do we need to see the congratulatory posts from future mothers-in-laws? No, I really don’t think so.

Before Facebook, when a relationship ended, it ended. Deciding to remain friends was at your discretion, and how much you divulged about your new love life (or found out about theirs) was mostly under your control. Then, most likely, the split couple would drift further apart and move on with their lives. Maybe you’d wonder what had happened to the other person, and then maybe you’d call them, or write a letter – or maybe you’d just run into them randomly at the farmer’s market. But by then you would have had time to heal.

Facebook hinders the healing process because it doesn’t allow you to disconnect, making it nearly impossible to put the relationship in the past, where it belongs. Remaining Facebook friends allows you to access the ex’s profile anytime you want to ruminate on what has been lost, and their status updates constantly remind you that they are alive and well, just not in a relationship with you.

Ironically, Mark Zuckerberg came up with the idea of Facebook late one night after getting dumped by a girl and, as a way to get her off of his mind, hacked into Harvard University’s computer systems to find pictures of all the girls on campus. Now, the existence of Facebook haunts every guy and girl who has been dumped.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Zuckerberg explained how Facebook is a channel for sharing information with other people. He believes this creates a “better world,” where “people can connect better with the people around them, understand more of what’s going on with the people around them, and understand more in general.”

Sure, Mark, staying connected to those you truly care about does make for a better world. I appreciate seeing pictures of my 2-year-old cousin skiing in Colorado, I love sharing photos of my best friend’s wedding and enjoy posting GO IRISH every Saturday the Notre Dame football team plays. But I am beginning to think staying too connected can make for a lonely world too – because all the time I spend on Facebook reminiscing about old relationships is time away from fostering new ones.

The New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen “unfriend” as the 2009 word of the year. Unfriend is a verb that means to “remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” So maybe in 2010 I will utilize this feature more often, unfriending the people in my life who aren’t really my friends – so I can spend more time with the people who actually are.

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Kate Hayes of Topsham is a medical student at the University of New England in Biddeford and a former news assistant at The Forecaster.