Unfriending: Facebook study shows that posting unimportant stuff too often drives users up wall

Although there's a big difference between the terms "friend" and "Facebook friend," the word "unfriend" is easy to understand. But what pushes Facebook users to unfriend someone? Christopher Sibona, a third-year PhD student at the University of Colorado-Denver, decided to find out -- and his findings strongly suggest that Facebook junkies can definitely overdo a good thing.

Sibona's research, scheduled for publication in January at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, was initially motivated by the unfriending of someone near and dear to him.

"My wife was unfriended after posting on a high school friend's political post," he recalls. "She wasn't really that close to this friend, but she didn't think her interactions were hostile. She just said, 'I disagree.' And after that, I wondered who's unfriending who and why are they doing it."

To find out, Sibona began mining Twitter for research subjects.

"I searched for tweets using the words 'unfriend' and 'defriend,'" he notes. "And then I screened these tweets to make sure they were talking about unfriending a person, and not someone saying something like, 'I'm unfriending the State of Arizona.' I also made sure they were speaking in English, and that the tweet wasn't particularly inflammatory, or it wasn't a joke. And sometimes it was hard to tell. I'd invite someone to take the survey, and they would respond, 'This was obviously a joke. Why are you asking?'"

Over a five-month period, Sibona managed to cajole just over 1,500 people to weigh in on unfriending, and after crunching the numbers, he came up with what he refers to as four "constructs" to explain unfriending decisions.

The categories, in order: frequent, unimportant posts; polarizing posts; inappropriate posts; and everyday life posts.

This last grouping is among the type of item Facebook haters tend to cite most often. "People will say things like, 'I don't need to know about what they ate for breakfast,'" Sibona points out, "but relatively few people unfriend others for posting about their eating habits." In fact, only about 9 percent of unfrienders mentioned food, as compared to 19 percent who unfriended someone because they blathered on about their job -- tops in the category. Other everyday life reasons for unfriending included posts about purchases, exercise, habits, money, celebrities, pets, sports scores, children, spouses and the promotion of a product or service.

The polarizing category deals with politics and religion -- the second-most common reason for unfriending in his survey. That was followed by inappropriate posts touching upon sex -- a subject that annoyed 15 percent of the respondents -- as well as sexism, racism, profanity and other unflattering statements.

For Sibona, the main surprise to emerge from his findings -- for him, if not for his wife -- was "politics and religion being the number two reason for unfriending. When I read blogs and what people are saying about unfriending, they talk more about banal topics, and that's a relatively low reason for unfriending."

Regarding the Facebook phenomenon in general, Sibona can't predict whether it'll become a permanent part of the cyber-landscape or be supplanted by another platform a few years from now. But he believes "social media is likely here to stay."

Which means that even if the term "unfriending" fades away, the concept will probably live on. Remember that when you're thinking about updating your status for the thirtieth time today...

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts