Saturday, June 9, 2012


Ambrose Bierce, American journalist, short story writer and grumpy old cynic, was way ahead of his time. More than a century ago, he became horrified at what he saw as "the characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorised introductions". People were introducing just anybody whether they were suitable or not. He invented unfriending, although he didn't call it that.

Ambrose Bierce lived in gentler times, when the world had social rules and everyone knew what those rules were. The way people developed their personal connections was no exception. There was none of today's "Hi, I'm Debbie – and you are ...?" There was family, the people they were stuck with because they were attached by blood or marriage. There were friends, who were acquired through mutual friends and were properly introduced and therefore, by implication, vouched for. The mutual friend would say something like "Mr Darcy, may I introduce to you Mr Collins?" and theoretically Mr Darcy could decline the connection, although it would be insulting to do so.

After friends came the acquaintances, people who might become friends but who had not yet reached that level of intimacy. Outside of these circles (hmmm, a bit like Facebook, trying to prod us into groups) were other people who were known but not considered friends: business associates, members of the same club, people encountered at weddings and the like. These people would not be so presumptuous as to, for example, use first names in conversation until invited to do so.

However the conventions of Ambrose Bierce's time must have been getting a bit lax and he didn't approve. In 1902 he published an essay* in which he laid about him with a rapier. He grumbled about the decline of social standards owing to the regrettable rise of democracy, especially in countries populated by those "of no consequence and no pretensions to respectability". Things had become so serious, he thought, that "men of sense who wish to know as few persons as possible can no longer depend on the discretion of their friends".

He offered a solution. He proposed a system of disintroductions. Instead of introducing one friend to another, an intermediary would undo what had already been done. "Mr Darcy, I have the honour to disintroduce you from Mr Collins."

Once he had recovered from the sheer impertinence of the whole Facebook culture with its "promiscuous, unsought and unauthorised introductions" Bierce, were he alive today, would probably have approved of its unfriending facility. No need for an intermediary – a simple click of the mouse and the job is done.

* Disintroductions, published 1902
Painting is "Begonias" (detail)

1 comment:

  1. great and funny piece - the more things change the more.....