In 1902, the caustic American satirist Ambrose Bierce – who once reviewed a book by observing that its covers were “too far apart” – proposed a new social convention. Modern life, he complained, involved being introduced to far too many people: you’d meet a friend in the street, then a friend of his would stroll by, and before you knew it you’d have a new, unasked-for acquaintance, with all the obligations that entailed. Bierce blamed the democratic spirit of the 20th century: in the older, more formal days, stricter rules governed who could form acquaintanceships with whom. “It is to be wished,” Bierce wrote, “that some great social force, say a billionaire, would set up a system of disintroductions.” He imagined a generous gent, a Mr White, resolving to disintroduce two friends of his, Mr Black and Mr Green. “Mr Black,” he might say, “knowing the low esteem in which you hold each other, I have the honour to disintroduce you from Mr Green.” Mr Black (bowing): “Sir, I have long desired your unacquaintance.” Mr Green: “Charmed to unmeet you, sir.” Mr White: “I’m sure you will become very good strangers.”
It’s probably best, for Bierce’s sake, that he never lived to seeFacebook’s People You May Know. Ever since the widespread adoption of email in the 1990s, in fact, the phenomenon he bemoaned has reached a scale he could never have imagined. Technology exposes us to vastly more opportunities for making social connections, and far more effortlessly than even a stroll down the street and a handshake. Yet an etiquette for terminating those links, should they outlive their mutual benefit – if they ever had any – remains as absent as ever. Even “unfriending” someone on Facebook, the closest equivalent to Bierce’s proposal, feels like delivering a slap in the face (and not even a well-timed slap, since you can’t be sure when they’ll find out). Facebook itself hates unfriending, for commercial reasons, and thus makes it easy to hide updates from tiresome contacts without their knowing – a deeply unsatisfactory arrangement that leaves you at constant risk of meeting someone face-to-face who assumes you must already know they’ve got engaged, or had another baby, or been dumped, or fired, or widowed.
The result – at least for anyone who can still recall friendship before the social media age – can be an awkward hodgepodge. There are Facebook friends with whom you want to share everything, those you’ve grown apart from, and those you’ve barely heard of. (You can assign them to different lists, but then you’ve introduced a whole new layer of decisions: who belongs where? What qualifies someone to be switched from one list to another? And so on.) There are Twitter followers with whom your acquaintance is strictly professional, those you know from school, but didn’t necessarily like, and those who are your dad. Not long ago, I realised, with a feeling of dismay, that I’d started to think of some of these contacts – not most of them, but some – as clutter.
If that sounds a heartless way to think about other people, consider the parallels. Physical clutter, as a widespread problem, is only as old as modern consumerism: before the availability of cheap gadgets, clothes and self-assembly furniture, it wasn’t an option for most people to accumulate basements full of unwanted exercise bikes, games consoles or broken Ikea bookshelves. We think we want this stuff, but, once it becomes clutter, it exerts a subtle psychological tug. It weighs us down. The notion of purging it begins to strike as us appealing, and dumping all the crap into bin bags feels like a liberation. “Friend clutter”, likewise, accumulates because it’s effortless to accumulate it: before the internet, the only bonds you’d retain were the ones you actively cultivated, by travel or letter-writing or phone calls, or those with the handful of people you saw every day. Friend clutter exerts a similar psychological pull. The difference, as Bierce understood, comes with the decluttering part: exercise bikes and PlayStations don’t get offended when you get rid of them. People do. So we let the clutter accumulate.