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We’re Not Friends: The Science of Facebook Unfriending

                                                                                                                              



We are an inherently social species. It is part of our nature. Psychologist Roy Baumeister said that “most animals learn about their worlds from their five senses, but humans mainly learn about the world from each other.” The need to belong, to be accepted is rooted deep within our psyche, and this has been the case since prehistoric times when humans congregated in tribes in order to ensure that they survived. Being rejected by the tribe significantly decreased the chances of survival, as people would be exposed to hostile creatures and individuals. Therefore, tribe members strove to be included, a trait that remains with us today. Researchers have discovered that connection is so integral to us that the brain processes rejection in a similar manner to the way it processes physical pain.

Humanity’s thirst for connection was further sated by the development of social media, with a key app being Facebook, which was started in February 2004 by Mark Zuckerburg with fellow Harvard college students. It officially filed to become a public company in February 2012 and it is currently the most popular social media platform, with 2.74 billion active users. People use it to add and follow the progress of “friends” – although it must be noted that Facebook allows users to befriend up to 5,000 individuals, which would be quite a few acquaintances to keep up with! The digital nature of the platform does not negate any of the emotional damage caused when it comes to rejection. In a study authored by doctoral student Christopher Sibona, 40% of people surveyed said that they would avoid anyone who unfriended them in real life, whilst 10% were unsure about whether or not they would avoid them. The study showed that individuals who were ostracised on social media had lower moods and reduced self-esteem.

 It is important to consider the reasons why someone would choose to unfriend another individual. Sibona discovered that the top 4 reasons were: 


1. Frequent, unimportant posts.

2. Polarizing posts about politics or religion.

3. Inappropriate posts involving sexist, racist remarks

4. Boring everyday life posts about children, food, spouses, etc.

 

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The fact that unimportant posts is the most likely reason for unfriending, above politics and religion, is interesting. Nowadays, due to the wide variety of social media platforms, people can often feel as though they are being constantly bombarded with information and personal updates from people they’re only vaguely familiar with. Therefore, people who post often about irrelevant matters may incur the resentment of others, as it may seem as though they are needlessly drawing attention to themselves.

After synthesizing information from 1077 respondents, the study found that high-school friends are the group most likely to be removed from peoples' friends lists. Personalities and beliefs can change after a period of time, to the extent that an individual can hold little in common with the people they used to associate with in their teenage years. Furthermore, friendships or acquaintances made at school are often made out of convenience, and the same can be said with work friends, a category that also appears on the list.


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The quality or quantity of political posts was noted as a key reason for unfriending, and interestingly, research co-authored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University found political posturing to be the top reason for Facebook unfriending, after looking at 1103 Facebook accounts. It must be noted that their study comprised Jewish Israeli Facebook users during a period of conflict between Israel and Gaza. Nonetheless, the study does reflect the fact that the bitter political struggles that define our time often spill over onto our social media networks.

In April 2020, an American survey of 2,031 people by Digital Third Coast showed that 24% of respondents had argued with someone on social media over Covid-19. 20% of them unfriended a friend over their disagreements. Shockingly, 15% unfriended a family member. Researcher Nicholas John of Hebrew University said that “people unfriend people who have different political views to theirs. By unfriending we are further contributing to the formation of echo chambers and filter bubbles.” Again, we return to the old mindset of tribalism. People attach themselves to a particular group or identity; they find a sense of belonging and their desire to commit to a particular cause often means that they disregard other opinions. However, by doing so, they form an echo chamber which further entrenches them in their opinion. The proliferation of coronavirus and the political struggles that have come with it has intensified this issue.

On the other hand, it could be argued that, during this difficult time, the fact that people want to remove things or people that could trigger a negative reaction from them is a positive thing. Stacey Sargison, online visibility and business coach, believes it is healthy to unfriend in order to stay out of toxic social media situations: “I would strongly suggest users look at who they follow and really connect with their own values and consciously choose … who gets to grace their news feeds.” This argument perhaps even extends to social media in general. Studies have shown that there is a link between increased social media usage and a decline in mental health, with one of the key reasons for this being the drop in self-esteem that comes when an individual starts comparing their life to the curated lives that are displayed on social media networks.


Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash


The potential negative effects of this are further increased by the fact that more people have started using social media since the coronavirus pandemic struck, with 1.3 million new users. This is understandable as, during a period marred by isolation, people want to connect with others, and one could argue that they have every right to ensure that the people within their network have a positive effect on their mental health. However, perhaps there are other, less drastic steps that can be taken.  


Facebook currently allows people to mark connections as “acquaintances” which means that they see less of their content. When this happens, the individual will still be listed as a friend, and they won’t be notified of the change. Facebook also allows people to unfollow others, which means that they no longer see their posts. Both of these options allow people to distance themselves from people whose content they would rather not see, without actually “unfriending”. Facebook also allows people to control who sees their posts, which can also help them to cultivate a positive online space. 

 

Social media is relatively new, and it often feels as though we are still trying to work out the rules in regards to etiquette. People are constantly entering and leaving our lives; change is inevitable, so perhaps it is okay for our social platforms to reflect this. In my opinion, in these difficult, unprecedented times it is important that human beings feel they have a supportive network around them - one that is conducive to their wellbeing, and if trimming down the number of "friends" on their social media helps them to do that then it is justifiable. And, perhaps there are occasions when greater causes compel us to make the push and unfriend others. 

 

In 2009, Burger King  ran a promotion called “Whopper Sacrifice” with the premise being that if people unfriended 10 people on Facebook, they gained a coupon for a free Whopper. The individuals received a notification telling them that they had been sacrificed for a Whopper. The marketing stunt was wildly popular, and nearly 234,000 people were de-friended as a result of it



Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash




Choosing to remove people from our lives online or offline can be tricky, but some reasons are far too compelling to ignore. 


Luke Gyesi-Appiah

Recently graduated with a BA in English Literature from the University of Exeter, and about to study an MA in Journalism at the University of Sheffield. He is an aspiring journalist and novelist; in his free time, he enjoys playing chess, listening to music and taking long walks through nature.


                                              


We’re Not Friends: The Science of Facebook Unfriending Reviewed by Luke Gyesi-Appiah on Wednesday, September 29, 2021 Rating: 5

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