Why We Unfriend

A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.

In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.

Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.

Or would they?

The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.

Past research by Christopher Sibona of the University of Colorado Denver found that the four most common reasons for unfriending on Facebook were: “frequent/unimportant posts, polarizing posts (politics and religion), inappropriate posts (sexist, racist remarks), and everyday life posts (child, spouse, eating habits, etc.) and in that order of frequency.”

But this time, Sibona sought to determine who, exactly, these jilted Face-friends are. And are we more willing to tolerate a sexist quip from an elderly relative than we are from a kickball teammate?

In 2010, he contacted 7,327 Twitter users, figuring if they were active on that, much smaller, social network, they were probably familiar with the larger one, too. He distributed online surveys to those who tweeted back.

“A total of 2,865 surveys were started and 1,552 were completed; 54 percent of those who started the survey completed the survey,” he wrote.

The survey asked the participants to identify the last person they unfriended on Facebook, and to classify the nature of the friendship.

Christopher Sibona

It turns out, these ex-friends were most likely to be a high-school buddy, a work colleague, a “friend of a friend,” or a category Sibona called “Other”: “didn’t know her,” “former student,” or, ominously, “enemy.”

High-school and work friends were also two commonly cited categories of people the participants said they had recently been unfriended by.

High-school friends were the most likely category to both unfriend and be unfriended. The nature of the offending status updates, though, differed among categories of friends.

In the case of high-school friends, the turn-off was likeliest to be a pattern of frequent, polarizing updates. There are only so many grammatically incorrect truther rants one cares to read in the Starbucks line, after all.

“The results show that survey respondents who unfriended high school friend types indicated that the person they unfriended posted statistically significantly more often about polarizing topics and frequent/unimportant topics than friends who were not from high school,” Sibona wrote in the study, recently presented at the Hawaii International Conference on System Science.

Work friends, meanwhile, were more likely to be unfriended for their real-life behaviors. (However, perhaps the high-school friends would have had just as many opportunities to be annoying in person, if they didn’t all live in Toledo.)

“The general term of friend on social networking sites can be misleading because a given dyad does not always represent friendship in the common sense,” Sibona concludes.

Indeed, as this and other studies show, “friend,” in the Facebook sense, represents people who say things we want to hear, for as long as we wish to hear them.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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