03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Simulating Reality In The Facebook Era: If You Unfriend Someone, Do They Still Exist?

For those of us over the age of say, 30, navigating social media networking is like learning a new language. We are, as we've been aptly named, digital immigrants. During our formative years -- the ones where we started dating, navigating friendships, figuring out how to stay connected with people we liked and even the ones we didn't -- we relied on phone, face to face, and believe it or not -letters and notes. This new medium of instant, free, and global communication is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing, increasing the breadth and depth of those with whom we maintain relationships.

In his provocative and spot-on piece "The Boundaries of a Breakup," Charles Antin's Modern Love piece in The New York Times (Sunday, November 22, 2009) describes navigating a breakup in the Facebook era. After they part, he stays painfully up to date on her life and eventually, her new relationship by checking her Facebook page regularly. When he receives a friend request from his 83 year-old grandfather, he's thrilled. When he sees that among Grandpa's first 8 friends is Charles' ex, he's horrified and has a "Facebook" meltdown, and the subsequent heart to heart they have (by phone) leads Grandpa to trashes his Facebook account, despite Charles protests against it.

His tale illustrates how much Facebook is impacting and possibly directing our circles of friends. If we don't see someone on Facebook, can we pretend they don't exist?

I recently had a friend, with whom I've had an increasingly difficult relationship over the years, "unfriend" me, because she found it troubling to see what was happening in my life while we were not on great speaking terms. It seemed bothersome to her to know that I was carrying on, living my life, having fun with other "friends" while we were no longer close.

And this is of course, not unique. The "friending" and "unfriending" of people happens probably thousands of times a minute even now. The unfriending (which, by the way, was pronounced Top Word of 2009 by the Oxford New American Dictionary, and is now accepted as a verb), while less common, is an integral part of learning to speak this new language. It allows us to remove someone from our peripheral vision.

The current exponential explosion of Facebook is a unique moment in history. I imagine that youth today friend each other or not, based on your place in their social circle in real time. You will not have 40 year-olds, like myself, reconnecting after 20 years with the same kids you hardly talked to in high school, catching up on decades of someone's life by surfing through their Facebook photo albums, checking their status to see if they are married or single. Suddenly, the ghosts of homerooms past become tangible and very real, living their lives in a parallel -- but now visible -- universe.

My fellow Gen X'ers and I joke about checking up on our high school classmates to see if the popular kids who tormented us are pumping gas at our hometown Mobil stations, or if ex-boyfriends are sad and single after breaking our hearts, only to find that most are living mostly normal and content lives, neither perfect nor terrible.

Over time, it will become increasingly clear just what Facebook etiquette is. It's not likely to need definition, it will simply become a cultural norm. It will be birthed out of countless "Facebook Disasters", faux pas, and trial by fire. In much the same way you know intuitively whether or not it's appropriate to send your ex the birth announcement of your first child, you'll know whether or not you should "friend" him, or just let him live on in your mind exactly as he was the day you broke up.

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