The Science Behind Defriending on Facebook

Apr 25 at 12pm

By Cecilia Rabess

This sorcerer claims to understand the mysteries of the universe. Well, not quite, but close: The Atlantic reports that a Facebook whisperer – sorry – researcher at University of Colorado Denver is peeling back the onion of Facebook friend politics and has published initial findings that explain why people unfriend each other on the social network.

Doctoral student Christopher Sibona found that high school friends are among the most commonly unfriended, followed by “other” friends, friends of friends, work friends, and common-interest friends. The most popular reasons for dropping these folks from one’s list? Unsurprisingly, posting too many polarizing religious or political comments (“climate-change schlimate-change!”) on the one hand, or frequent, uninteresting posts (“ate another sandwich”) on the other.

And while Sibona’s research doesn’t delve into the particulars of what qualifies as either category of comment, I think it’s fair to say that not all offensive content is created equal. It would be interesting to understand what specifically is forcing people to pull the unfriend trigger. For my part, I draw the line at posts exclusively composed of strings of airport codes and Game of Thrones spoilers.

Perhaps even more interesting than Sibona’s initial findings is the subsequent research he released on the emotional impact of being rejected on social media. Think about it this way, to stay Facebook friends with someone requires absolutely zero effort, but to unfriend them requires at least a few clicks of the mouse – you have to be a real monster for someone to go to all that trouble.

Sibona’s report describes the most common responses to getting the ax, and I have to say, they read like the four stages of Facebook friend loss grief. Surprise (“but we haven’t even spoken for eight years!”), annoyance (“whatever, we haven’t even spoken for eight years”), amusement (“that’s hilarious, we haven’t even spoken for eight years”) and finally, sadness (“WHY GOD, WHY?”).

Perhaps this just points to the idea that there should be more than one way to end a Facebook friendship. I envision a button that allows you to send a short message every time you unfriend someone: “It’s not you it’s me,” “I simply hate your baby,” “I don’t want to ‘like’ your brother’s gutter cleaning service,” etc.

As Sibona notes, the “one size fits all” method of ending digital relationships warrants more research. What we have here is the equivalent of the modern dilemma whereby cellular technology prevents us from angrily ending a call by slamming down the phone. Quietly unfriending someone surely isn’t as gratifying as letting that person know just how little you care about his puppy or his politics (or his puppy’s politics.) Perhaps this just points to the idea that there should be more than one way to end a Facebook friendship. I envision a button that allows you to send a short message every time you unfriend someone: “It’s not you it’s me,” “I simply hate your baby,” “I don’t want to ‘like’ your brother’s gutter cleaning service,” etc.

Until then, Sibona’s research does provide some more general insights into Facebook’s evolution. As Facebook morphs from an intimate platform for friends to a catchall for the names and faces of everyone we’ve ever met, an increasing amount of noise is inevitable. Just like riding a public bus, you’re going to see and hear plenty of things that you'd rather not. On the other hand, maybe recognition of the fact that many of us are prone to posting so much about so little will force us to reevaluate how we use Facebook.

Perhaps we'll eventually see Facebook less as a refuge for our most mundane and stochastic thoughts, and, as in real life, think more about how to share information that’s interesting and relevant to our friends (“ate another sandwich … but here’s why it matters to you!”) Either way, that day is not today.

It will be interesting to see how Sibona’s research develops. Fortunately he’s hard at work on producing a new study and you can participate in his latest survey here. In the meantime, if you want to keep your Facebook friends, don’t be boring, don’t be a crazy zealot, and don’t go to high school. You’re welcome.

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