The New Oxford American Dictionary chose the verb "unfriend" as its 2009 Word of the Year (WOTY) and defined it this way: "to remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook." The word "has both currency and potential longevity," explained Christine Lindberg, Oxford's senior lexicographer on the OUP Blog.
The choice of this year's word is telling because the act of unfriending (or defriending) is part of the normal pruning process of maintaining a presence on social media like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. It's easy to collect more friends than you want or need, including many contacts that may turn out not to be "friends" by any reasonable definition of the word.
Fortunately, if someone posts too often, bores you, lurks without posting, has questionable politics or ethics, says something caustic or insensitive, acts unpredictably, or even uses too many exclamation points, it's relatively easy to get rid of them electronically---with no more than a few keystrokes.
But dumping a true friend--online or off--isn't as easy because it raises the risk of collateral damage. When two people are really "friends," they're likely to have numerous connections. They may have common friends, live in the same neighborhood, share a workplace or livelihood, belong to the same community or organizations, or have exchanged information (including secrets and confidences) with one another.
So a word of caution: Even though a new verb has entered the common parlance, think twice before you unfriend. Doing it carries some of the same risks of dumping someone offline.
Click here to see the other words of the year.
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Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.