This morning, Rex Petrasko, my savvy, smart, sincere executive vice president, closed our daily meeting with the announcement that the New Oxford American Dictionary had proclaimed the Word of the Year for 2009 to be “unfriend.” I smiled at him knowingly from across the room, because I had heard the confounding announcement hours earlier on NPR as I brushed my teeth.
When I heard the brief news byte, I paused for a moment, swallowed hard and considered the irony. First of all, how interesting that the Word of the Year would be a social media—even Facebook word. And “unfriend,” no less. How perplexing that the Oxford folk embraced the negative version of the verb-ized noun “friend.”
“It has both currency and potential longevity,” notes Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford ’s US dictionary program. “In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!). Unfriend has real lex-appeal.”
Christine, I think I beg to differ. “Unfriend” has a limited appeal, if at all, and it is particularly disconcerting in this age when people are desperate to connect on some level—electronic or otherwise. Friend, blog, text, comment, post, and tweet are all new inhabitants of the morphed communication lexicon. They are all terms for a new mode of behaving—a new way of being—not so much communicating.
I commented on my Facebook page status today that the Word of the Year might be indicative of the dark underbelly of social media. Merridith Branscombe, a Facebook pal and spirited, sassy woman from my Northwestern sorority days, commented, “It is fairly strange that friend somehow transformed to a verb; and that ‘unfriend’ is Word of the Year? I guess it’s not on the underbelly anymore, but in plain sight.
She is absolutely correct. It is in plain sight. We are connecting and disconnecting in plain sight—in front of God and everyone, and “there’s the rub,” as Hamlet said. Social media is less about communicating and more about behaving. At one point, my ex-boyfriend seemed more disturbed about my “unfriending” him on Facebook than about the actual breakup of the relationship. It gives me pause. Are we all more concerned about the virtual ramifications of relationships than the realities? Something to ponder—especially when we are all so hungry for valuable, real, authentic connection, and online experiences that are truly worth our time and attention in this choatic, often superficial world.
More and more, we are defining ourselves by how we interact, as opposed to what we say. The way we describe ourselves is really irrelevant. We are—how we are, as opposed to who we are. Same goes for businesses. Our customers are defining our brands—not vice versa.
“Unfriend” means that we no longer wish the “offending” person to be part of our online inner circles—our intimate online world, our defined universe. Our walls and tweet streams are sacred ground in many ways. They document our inner most thoughts and our profoundest dreams—our vulnerability and our humanity. As I have mentioned in other posts, “ambient intimacy” has come to describe the visceral nature of social media. Considering that an old boyfriend still might be lurking around as a so-called friend feels invasive, almost voyeuristic. But, how incongruent this seems in a word of open-source and “shareware.” It’s a paradox, indeed.
As the social web continues to explode with opportunities for connection and synergy, conversely, the need to maintain personal autonomy and control somehow intensifies. What do you think?