What Drives Facebook Unfriending?
April 23, 2014

What Drives Facebook Unfriending? And How Do We Respond To It?

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

There is a humorous commercial making its way around these days where an older lady "posts pictures to her wall" by physically taping them to the wall in her living room, and then yells "I unfriend you" at one of her friends. We all laugh at it because we realize that she's "doing it all wrong," but unfriending on Facebook is all too real, and has real world consequences.

A research team from the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) has published two studies in the 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) that shed new light on the most common type of friend to be unfriended, and their emotional response to it. Both studies involved a survey of 1,077 people conducted on Twitter.

The first study, led by Christopher Sibona, a doctoral student in the Computer Science and Information Systems program at the CU Denver Business School, looked at "context collapse and unfriending behaviors" on Facebook. He found that the most likely person to be unfriended is a high school acquaintance.

"The most common reason for unfriending someone from high school is that the person posted polarizing comments often about religion or politics," Sibona said in a recent statement. "The other big reason for unfriending was frequent, uninteresting posts."

Sibona found that the top five types of "friends" who were unfriended were:

• High School friends
• Other
• Friend of a friend
• Work friends
• Common interest friend

"We found that people often unfriend co-workers for their actions in the real world rather than anything they post on Facebook," Sibona said.

Sibona believes that high school friends are at the top of the list for unfriending because of their political and religious beliefs. When people are younger, those beliefs are not usually as strong, or as evident. As we age, our beliefs become more hardset, and may become more strident, making it easier to offend others.

"Your high school friends may not know your current political or religious beliefs and you may be quite vocal about them," Sibona said. "And one thing about social media is that online disagreements escalate much more quickly."

The second study, also led by Sibona, examined the emotional impact of being unfriended. He found that the emotions ranged from being bothered to being amused.

In order of proportion, the respondents' most common responses were:

• I was surprised
• It bothered me
• I was amused
• I felt sad

"The strongest predictor is how close you were at the peak of your friendship when the unfriending happened," said Sibona, who has studied the real world consequences of Facebook unfriending since 2010. "You may be more bothered and saddened if your best friend unfriends you."

Four factors were revealed that could predict someone's emotional response to being unfriended. The factors were evenly divided between causing a user to feel more or less negatively affected by the unfriending.

The more negative factors were if the unfriended person was once a close friend to the one who unfriended them and how closely the person monitored their own friend's list. The less negative factors were if difficulties were discussed between the friends before the unfriending and if the person unfriended talked about it with others after the unfriending.

In a strange twist, Sibona said that his research revealed that unfriending was more common with friends who were once close than with those who were only acquaintances.

"Despite the preponderance of weak ties throughout online social networks, these findings help to place unfriending within the greater context of relationship dissolution," the study said.

Sibona says the real world consequences of the "one size fits all" method of ending relationships warrants more research. If you would like to help him continue his research into why people either stay or leave Facebook, you can take his anonymous survey here.

"If you have a lot of friends on Facebook, the cost of maintaining those friendships is pretty low," he said. "So if you make a conscious effort to push a button to get rid of someone, that can hurt."