Unfriending on Facebook often kills actual friendships, study shows

All of us with Facebook pages have grappled with the dilemma of what to do about the so-called "friend" who posts crap way too often. But before you choose to unfriend someone, think twice -- because cutting the cord online can, and often does, end friendships in the real world, too.

That's among the revelations in a University of Colorado Denver study, which found that 40 percent of respondents said they'd avoid a person who dared to unfriend them.

The person behind the study is Christopher Sibona, a doctoral student in the Computer Science and Information Systems program at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, who's made the scholarly investigation of Facebook something of a specialty. Back in 2010, we wrote about his look into the causes of unfriending.

The top five reasons for unfriending listed by that group of respondents were, in order, frequent, unimportant posts; polarizing posts; inappropriate posts; and everyday-life posts -- the designation for items of the what-I-had-for-breakfast variety.

What was his goal this time around?

"The investigation was basically to determine what happens at the end of the relationship in terms of, 'Will the person avoid the person who unfriended them?,'" Sibona says. "From the perspective of being unfriended, I wanted to know if there were some real-world consequences."

This question was fueled in part by a common response to posts about social network research, including his own: "Nobody cares."

That didn't ring true to Sibona. "I think that's short-sighted," he allows. "Facebook is the number one place where Americans spend time online. They're spending a long time there, and it seemed to me that there would be an impact from unfriending, even though the vast majority of people say, 'You shouldn't care about that. They're not real friends. They're fake friends.'"

Turns out his instincts were borne out by research. For the study, published by the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, he analyzed 582 survey responses collected using another ubiquitous social-media service, Twitter. And he discovered that "about 40 percent of the time, the person who was unfriended will avoid the person who unfriended them. They'll be uncomfortable seeing them and will actively avoid seeing that person."

This behavior is hardly universal. Sibona points out that "about 50 percent of the people said it wouldn't make any difference" -- meaning they wouldn't steer clear of an unfriender or an unfriendee -- "and about 10 percent were in the middle."

The study doesn't stop there. "The investigation continued into some deeper-level stuff, like, 'Does unfriending on Facebook resemble friendship dissolution in general' -- and in many ways, it does."

Continue for more about unfriending, including the complete study. When ending friendships, most people go through a four-step process, and Sibona looked into two of them: Did the friends talk about trouble in the relationship before ending it?, and do the former pals tell others the friendship is over?

The former "sometimes happens on Facebook," Sibona says. "You'll see people say something like, 'I only want my Facebook news feed to be about fun stories. Stop the politics. Stop the religious stuff. I want it to be about bunnies and children.'"

Of course, Sibona goes on, Facebook users can take options shy of unfriending. "You can tell Facebook you want to see more or less content like this, and it will hide certain people." In that sense, then, unfriending is a comparatively aggressive action, as opposed to a wholly passive one -- which may be one reason why a significant percentage of people take it personally.

As for the second area of examination, Sibona refers to it as "grave dressing." An example would be "a romantic dissolution -- saying, 'We're not dating anymore.'" This action was taken very seriously by those who participated in the study. In Sibona's words, "Grave dressing was the number-one factor as to whether someone would actively avoid seeing someone else."

The number-two factor? How sad a person felt after being unfriended -- the more despondent, the more likely he or she was to stay away from the unfriender. Avoidance was also common among people who had apologized for doing something -- "telling their friend, 'I behaved badly,'" Sibona says -- and then was unfriended anyhow. He compares it to "borrowing someone's car and then crashing it and returning it, and that person doesn't want to be friends anymore. You think, 'I don't need to see that person again.'"

Real-life friend avoidance was also impacted by "peak relationships" -- how close a person had been to the unfriender at some point in the past -- and the subjects' gender. According to Sibona, women who'd been unfriended were more likely to keep a distance from the former friend than were men.

Yet plenty of men and women alike admitted that rather than shrugging off unfriending, "they searched for meanings in these dissolutions," Sibona says. "They were like, 'What happened here?' And then they'd think, 'Okay, they don't want to see me anymore. I got the message.'"

And there usually is one, Sibona says. "I think people unfriend other people to send a signal. Online relationships on Facebook are very easily maintained at low cost: You can establish these ties and you don't have to interact with the person at all and the tie remains, even if you hide the person from your news feed. So the act of unfriending is a very conscious act. It sends a signal to the receiver, even if it's not always received."

Here's Sibona's latest study.

Facebook Future Contact Avoidance Study

More from our Tech archive: "Unfriending: Facebook study shows that posting unimportant stuff too often drives users up wall."

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