The Hidden: A Nasty New Form of Facebook Friendship

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So here's a question: Would you rather be "defriended," or "hidden"?

I assume you know this, but there's a feature on Facebook that lets you "hide," meaning eliminate, the status updates of any given friend from your "news feed." Unlike the phenomenon of unfriending, the implications of this feature have not been properly scrutinized. The deceptively simple act of hiding a friend allows you to do something strange and new: participate in the public signaling aspect of friendship, without participating in the basic hassles or bothers of friendship, such as caring about your friends' lives. This strikes me as one of the most amazing, and depressing, innovations in the history of personal acquaintance.

Yes, as I assume anybody using social media has figured out, with so much information to filter, not all your friends, followers, or contacts catch your every blurt. The "hide" option responds specifically to this challenge by identifying you and your information as part of the problem: It's a cold filter, and your online presence is the bothersome debris. Thanks to this feature, then, there is a fresh middle ground of friendness: "Yes, yes, we can be friends in the sense that we declare a relationship in public, but I would prefer never to hear anything you have to say."

For perspective, consider this. A friend invites you to lunch. You happily attend. Your friend shares his or her news, observations, achievements; possibly you "like" this information. Then it's your turn: You share the project you're working on, the cute thing your kid did yesterday, the amazing picture you took on the way to work last Thursday, and so on. What you do not know, however, is that your friend has hidden you. Your little epiphanies and joys and announcements are not heard or seen, let alone "liked."

I would prefer not to tell you whether I use the "hide" feature, but the answer is, I do. I feel terrible about it, particularly because I use it in ways that don't even track my actual feelings of friendliness. There are people I don't know very well who post really great links, so I'm not going to hide them. But there are people I care deeply about who --

Well, let me try to stop short of seeming like a total asshole, and reverse the paradigm. How many of my friends hide me? Maybe they like me okay, or at one time they were comfortable with the idea of pretending that they like me, or maybe they're just racking up thousands of friends for reasons of their own. There's no way of knowing how many or which ones, but it must be the case that some of them don't care what I'm up to, and they're not amused by the oddball video that I enjoyed so much. Yet they don't want to alienate me. HIDE.

I believe I'd rather be defriended. Maybe it would be more painful. But I think that if I could choose between talking to an empty room, and talking to a room full of people who seem to be there but can't hear a word I'm saying, I'd prefer to face down the stark reality of vacant seats. (Maybe it would make me less of an asshole?) I actually considered announcing something like this as a status update, before realizing that of course the people I'd be trying to reach have long since made that impossible, by choice.

What about you? How many friends do you "hide"? Why is such a person still your friend? Do you have Facebook friends who you like a lot in real life - but who simply use Facebook in a way you find intolerable?

And if some of your friends felt that way about you, would you rather be defriended, or hidden?

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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News and a contributor to Design Observer. He is a co-editor of the anthology Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

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