Many of our social media networks are bullshit. Sure, we can use them to maintain relationships with those we care about and might not interact with as easily otherwise. But often we just accumulate contacts, then never engage them. One study showed, for instance, that university students could only recognize, on average, 72 percent of their Facebook friends. Yet for some, losing a contact, even if it is only an acquaintance with whom they never really interact, can feel like a serious emotional blow. This may seem irrational, given how shallow these networks are. But it turns out there strong reasons why losing followers can, in some cases, sting so badly.
Social media friends and followers are not entirely frivolous, explains Wesleyan University social psychologist Kip Williams. They are just one of many ways that we build our sense of inclusion in wider social systems, and through that, often a sense of our self-worth. Losing followers or friends online, Williams says, “affects people much like any form of rejection, ostracism, or exclusion.” That is to say, it has the potential to cause us pain, challenge our self-esteem, and sense of control. All of us, Williams adds, may feel some negative effects if we notice that we are losing social media connections. But the valence of that reaction varies by personal and social context.
Unsurprisingly, the limited research that exists on social media psychology suggests people most often feel upset when someone they have, or recently had, a close real-world bond with unfollows or unfriends them. This is especially true when that close unfollower did not give the unfollowed party a heads up, or try to talk through any interpersonal tension before doing so. Such a sudden digital severance often reads as a profound act of passive aggression or conflict aversion. But even if the unfollowed party does get prior notice, that unfollow can be a sad reminder of a fractured bond.
These unfriending dynamics actually seems to be fairly rare, though. Christopher Sibona, a University of North Carolina at Wilmington professor who studies social networks and the dynamics of Facebook unfriending put out a study in 2014 which was based on survey of 1,077 Facebook users. He found that people are mostly likely to chop their old high school friends on social media, followed by casual acquaintances, friends of friends, and work friends—people with whom they likely do not have strong real-life bonds.
That study also found that when people were unfriended on Facebook, their most common reaction was surprise; their third-most-common reaction was amusement. This and subsequent research leads Sibona to the (unsurprising) conclusion that, for the average social media user, “if you are unfriended by someone you don’t know, then you tend not to be negatively affected.”
But that just describes the average social media user. Some people have a higher need for signs of social belonging than others, notes Williams. Some of us also depend more than others on their social media networks for their sense of social value and belonging, adds Larry Rosen, an expert on the psychology of the digital world at California State University. These people may be hypersensitive to friend or follower count fluctuations.
This general profile seemingly accords with research conducted on 547 Facebook users in 2011 by Jennifer Bevan, a social media expert at Chapman University, that showed that more active and engaged Facebook users took unfriendings harder. Bevan also found that those who know who unfriended them were more likely to react negatively. Sibona’s research suggests, he says, that the people most likely to know that detail are those who keep a close watch on their friend counts and (using simple social media tools) identify every lost follower.
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For these people, losing any follower, even an acquaintance, may mean losing what they perceive as quantifiable social status that they use to validate themselves. If they share personal aspects of their lives online and take great care to curate their ideal image of themselves, any unfriending may feel like a critique of or a slight to their personal identity as well.
We might characterize these types, as the business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently did in a conversation with me, as “insecure people with unstable self-esteem.” But they may have some valid reason to feel hurt by any unfriending or unfollowing. In real life, when we don’t want to be connected to someone in our peripheral orbit, we can just avoid them, or drift away painlessly. Disconnecting on social media by unfollowing or unfriending involves a clear and public act of rejection. That rejection may be especially noteworthy now that sites allow us to mute people we don’t want to see on our feeds. If one chooses to unfriend rather than mute someone in their digital sphere, that can read as a rare, blunt act of personal rejection.
People also appear, based on the few existing studies on the subject, to unfriend those who initiated a digital connection with them. And they tend to disconnect with people they don’t have direct personal conflicts with, according to Sibona’s findings, because they believe their posts are too mundane or offensive. Tales of people losing followers due to controversial or dull posts are so common that social media obsessives have reason to take an unfollow as an indictment of the digital identity they’ve so meticulously constructed and presented to the wider world.
This may explain why muting a social media contact seems to be more popular than unfriending or unfollowing. It accomplishes the goal of removing an individual from one’s digital life without sending a harsh, deliberate, public message that could bruise a fragile ego. That could risk, Rosen notes, a negative response like—in the extreme—digital trolling or physical stalking.
There are still many reasons to unfriend someone, though. Sibona notes that work policies may require it, for instance. In that case, experts recommend reaching out to the soon-to-be-defriended party to let them know why a tie is being severed to blunt any possible collateral emotional hit. In instances where someone is threatening one’s mental health or sense of safety in a way that muting would not solve, though, this courtesy need not apply; we all need to take care of ourselves.
It's unclear how many people are so sensitive about their digital social capital that unfriending them would hurt. As Bevan notes, research on this topic is surprisingly anemic: Most of the studies cited in this piece are based on at least five-year-old data—so it predates the muting option on most sites and thus may underestimate the impact of an unfollowing or unfriending. No one I spoke to was aware of studies that have compared reactions to different forms of digital disconnection across social media platforms, or on one platform over time, either. So we don’t know if any elements of sites exacerbate this sensitivity or not.
But we do know there are valid reasons why people may feel hurt by losing even a peripheral follower or friend. That may seem odd or irksome to those who want to prune our friend or follower lists with impunity and without the fear of hearing that someone they cut from their rolls is offended. And it may be wise for these people to build up a little more resilience against this sensitivity; Williams encourages friend or follower watchers to try to focus more on their close friendships rather than numbers.
However, it is likely inevitable that so long as people crave social connection and self-worth, they will channel those desires into social media conduits, and react with predictable sensitivities. So we might as well accept this reality, and the all too human forces that underscore it, and approach our social media friend and follower lists with as much, if not more, consideration and kindness as we do our real-life networks.
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