Does Facebook ‘un-friending’ impact real-life relationships?


Computer Science researchers from the University of Colorado are studying how ‘unfriending’ Facebook friends impacts our real life relationhips. How do our social norms and structure influence our use of social media, and vice versa?

Recent research has been carried out by Christopher Sibona and Steven Walczak, researchers at the University of Colorado to assess the effect that ‘unfriending’ on facebook has in ‘real life’. The researchers found that facebook users tend to ‘unfriend’ due to the ‘unfriended’ individual publishing too many posts about unimportant topics such as advertising of club events etc., talk about polarizing issues (e.g. politics, religion, world news) and those that mention inappropriate topics such as swearing, racism, sexual photos or those that tend to reveal too much about their daily lives such as eating, money and family.

Respondents gave reasons such as personality clashes, misdeeds and trust betrayal and a person’s unsettling behaviour. Students interviewed in St.Andrew’s gave similar responses; Second year student,Edward Clark stated that he would ‘unfriend’ to ‘get those unwanted people you meet one night and are never going to see again, off my news feed’ and also for ‘clutter management’. Similar to the study, he noted how the process of ‘unfriending’ has more of a symbolic meaning than anything and that the removal of friends would be most likely if ‘your friendship is already going badly and you probably wouldn’t ‘unfriend’ if everything’s going swimmingly’. Although, Sibona and Walczak’s study revealed more women than men would avoid contact with the person that unfriended them, it was interesting to see that St.Andrew’s male interviewees were more likely to ‘blank’ those that unfriend them than female students, Shona Miller and Stefanie Hindmarch responded with ‘I would still acknowledge them depending on who it was’ and ‘I wouldn’t bring it up but I would feel awkward if I ran into them’.

The study also found that people who initiated more friend requests were more likely to be unfriended on facebook in comparison to those who received more friend requests, who were more likely to be the initiators. In the study, facebook users stated that unfriending on a social network signified how the offline relationship was also over and nearly 40% of respondents who have initiated a facebook breakup revealed they would avoid the person afterwards. Sibona argues “people think social networks are just for fun, but, in fact, what you do on those sites can have real-world consequences”. Sibona found six factors which predicted whether someone would avoid a person who unfriended them such as whether the event was discussed after it happened, if the emotional response was negative, if the person unfriended thought the action was due to offline behaviour and geographical distance.

When looking at the real-life consequences of unfriending, we can see that maintaining online relationships requires relatively low maintenance. Sibona states ‘In the real world, you have to talk to people and maintain face-to-face contact’ which is lacked in online socialisation. The ‘abrupt’ end to online relationships is also key in declaring that a friendship is over, which can often make the real-life consequences a lot worse.

“Since it’s done online, there is an air of unreality to it” argues Sibona but in fact there are “Real-life consequences”  and as a society we are still trying to come to grips with “how to handle elements of social media as the etiquette is different and often quite stark” in comparison to real-life. Importantly, he notes how unfriending results in people facing psychological effects because unfriending may be viewed as a form of social exclusion. From this study it can be seen that the process of cyber-exclusion through unfriending has significant effects, mainly psychological consequences, to those whom it occurs to and how our social norms and structures in society influence our use of social media and vice versa.

Photo credit: Pollyalida Flickr Creative Commons




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