November 18, 2009
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New Oxford American Dictionary, it’s over. No more status updates, no more shared photos – you’re unfriended.

This week, Oxford University Press announced it’s Word of Year for 2009 – “unfriend.” It’s defined as “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” Lexographers at OUP were particularly struck by the word’s use – an “unfriend” isn’t an enemy (noun), but what you do to end a friendship on a social networking site (verb). Of course, “friend” is used in the same sense when you add someone to your contacts on a site (no word on whether that will be added to the main entry).

This will be going in to the New Oxford American Dictionary (presumably right between “unfret” and “unfriendly”) soon, preserving forever one of the most awkward of online social interactions. The vagaries of social interactions, relationships, and manners wrapped up in this word are a knotty problem – and regularly addressed by advice columnists, academics, and countless others. Among my acquaintances, the 2008 US election precipitated a wave of unfriending angst – were people’s political beliefs, vociferousness, and/or obtuseness unfriendable offenses, or merely worthy of being put on limited profile?

Fortunately, Facebook and other SNS do not (yet) send people notifications that they have been unfriended, limiting the potential hurt feelings, insulting exchanges, and wounded pride that would result. However, there are third party apps that can tell you when you’ve been unfriended – perfect for the person with a healthy sense of self, or a strong masochistic streak. And, if the unfriended are paying attention, they’ll know what you did – and might try to friend you again.

It seems that the benefits of online social interaction have gone fully mainstream – leading to new and exciting anxieties about how we manage our presentations of self, and our relationships with a variety of people, when they increasingly take place in the same context. Whether it’s your uncle and your roommate arguing on your Facebook Wall, or a date answering texts from work while out to dinner, there aren’t strong codes of conduct to easily apply. A recent episode of This American Life focused on “frenemies,” and one story hinged on a broken friendship that was awkwardly resurrected through Facebook, and ended with an unfriending. The New York Times chronicles the increasing “rudeness” and its accompanying “scolds” who make a hobby out of correcting such behavior. Given the simultaneous fading of strong social norms of etiquette (did you know that your napkin goes on the chair when you get up from the table mid-meal?), the cries for stronger enforcement of politesse seem both hopelessly outdated and charmingly rebellious.

Ultimately, though, I’m just glad that the Word of the Year didn’t go to either “sexting” or “teabagger.”


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One Response to “ Unfriended! ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on November 18, 2009 at 9:35 PM

    My favorite part of the press release on that announcement was Senior Lexicographer Christine Lindberg’s zinger – “it’s got real lex-appeal.”