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'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' takes on Facebook with National Unfriend Day

Jimmy Kimmel uses his show to urge people to 'whittle' their Facebook friends lists by promoting National Unfriend Day. He's only half-joking.

November 18, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live, wants you to get rid of your frivolous Facebook friends.
Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live, wants you to…

It still lacks the grandeur of, say, Administrative Professionals Day. But Jimmy Kimmel is hoping his campaign to weed those overgrown Facebook friend rosters will become an American tradition.

Thursday is the second annual National Unfriend Day, which the ABC late-night host is sponsoring to help persuade Facebook users to trim their burgeoning friend lists, which often number in the hundreds and occasionally in the thousands.

"I really feel like it's gonna replace the Jerry Lewis telethon," Kimmel joked in a phone interview this week. "We're hoping to get Norm Crosby this year … We're hoping that it goes on as long as there's a Facebook."

Started in 2004, Facebook, now the world's premier social-media site, with more than 800 million users, is just one year younger than "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" — which is not quite the world's premier late-night talk show, but it's doing OK, thanks. As they've grown up together, Kimmel has grown progressively more vexed by the online service, which he views as a gigantic waste of time — time that could be better spent, for example, watching ABC's late-night television block.

"Everyone I work with is on Facebook all the time," Kimmel said. "I just don't understand why they're interested in what somebody they went to the fifth grade with is having for lunch … I decided it would be a good idea to encourage people to whittle those friends down."

Kimmel's show has an active Facebook fan page but for his personal page the host uses an alias — a big no-no for Facebook, which prefers users to keep their real identities.

"I never check it and I have, like, eight friends," he said. "They're all family members."

As comedy stunts go, crossing swords with the world's second-most-popular website (behind Google) might not be a bad gimmick. But there are some serious issues lurking behind Kimmel's quest.

As Facebook has surged in popularity — especially since 2006, when it opened up beyond students to anyone over the age of 13 — users have struggled with how to incorporate the service into their lives. Just this week, Facebook was struck by a spam attack that filled some users' news feeds with pornographic and violent images.

A more common problem arises with "friending," or the process of choosing the people who populate each user's personal network. A study released this week by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that 66% of adults online use social media, and two-thirds of those cited connecting with friends as a major reason for using the services.

But on Facebook, the meaning of the word "friend" has been stretched to include people the user has never met and indeed has never even heard of before.

"These people are not your friends," Kimmel scoffed. "No one has 2,000 friends."

Kayla Bourgeois, an account executive at Raleigh, N.C.-based ad agency Howard, Merrell & Partners, wrote an online essay in September describing her efforts to trim her list of nearly 1,000 Facebook friends to just 333.

"The trend with Facebook for a while was to connect with as many people as possible," Bourgeois wrote. "Boost your friend count by keeping up with networking connections, spying on past high school friends, and Facebook-stalking random hotties you met at the bar.

"But after graduating and joining the real world those needs change, along with the people you Facebook friend," she added.

She met her goal by ruthlessly eliminating friends she no longer kept in touch with, all of her current co-workers, some networking contacts and even a few distant relatives. "Nobody was safe," she wrote, adding that she intends to keep her friend list at 333 even as she meets new people — thereby ensuring future cuts.

That kind of thinking would meet Kimmel's approval. But his crusade isn't winning fans among some of the digital elite, who feel it's demeaning to the social-media movement.

"Kimmel's stunt is just that — a dumb stunt," Paul Levinson, an active Twitter user and media professor at Fordham University, wrote in an email.

It "reflects nothing more than that Facebook has become so ubiquitous a part of life that everyone has some frustrations with it, and Facebook has become grist for comedians to poke fun at.

"The reality is none of us can do without Facebook, Twitter or some kind of social media, and that's all to the good, because these media keep us better informed and in touch with people we care about."

Except for people like Kimmel, who claims that his efforts last year led to change at Facebook. "They added a step as far as unfriending people goes; they made it more complicated," he said. "Of course, we attributed that to ourselves. But it probably had nothing to do with it." (A Facebook representative could not be reached for comment.)

But just don't get him started on Farmville, the agricultural game made popular on Facebook.

"If you want to talk about our country in crisis and how things have changed, can you imagine explaining to someone from 40 years ago that there are gonna be imaginary farms and people are gonna work on them all day and they're gonna get nothing out of them and they're gonna tell everyone about it?" Kimmel asked. "That's why we're a mess."?

scott.collin@latimes.com

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