Guest Blogger: Dr. Christopher Sibona, Assistant Professor of Information Systems, Cameron School of Business, and is based on his 2014 research published in the International Journal of Business Environment. Find out more about his research here.Raise your hand if you’ve ever been offended by someone “unfriending” you online (we won’t tell).
We know that social networking sites are prevalent. They give people the ability to connect with each other and create and share content. They also present the opportunity for a new way to disconnect.
Through my research, I have found that unfriending happens for many reasons that include both online and offline behavior. It is vital for the business community to create strong relationships on social media platforms and maintain those relationships over time.
The act of unfriending is important to understand for a number of reasons. Researchers are often interested in how friendships are established, but frequently neglect to delve into how and why friendships end. While it’s true that friendships in online settings may mirror those in offline settings, in some ways they can be quite different.
Unfriending online is different than the dissolving of a friendship offline in that a conscious decision is made that signals the end of the friendship. In the real world, friendships often fade away with no conscious decision. Additionally, unfriending in online settings is intentional and visible to the members of the social networking site whereas “real life” offers no visible status of a relationship. When you consider the action in this light, you can see how this can get sticky (emotionally speaking, that is).
Understanding the context of unfriending on social media is key to a deeper understanding. The most common reasons for unfriending someone for their online behavior are: too-frequent posts about topics that are perceived as unimportant to the follower; polarizing posts (politics and religion); inappropriate posts (sexist, racist, etc.); and banal posts (posting about what you ate, your workouts, your children, your parents, etc.), in that order.
You may expect that posting too often about unimportant topics can get you unfriended but the second most common reason for unfriending is regarding a person’s deeply personal and strongly held beliefs, such as politics and religion. In online settings, people often freely share their beliefs, even though they are not always well-received.
Of course, a person’s opinions on the same topic do not change in face-to-face conversations, but one might abstain from point-by-point refutations in order to avoid heightened emotional confrontation.
In online settings, conversations can escalate quickly due to their asynchronous nature, as well as lack of visual cues. People can restart a heated conversation online 30 minutes (or even days!) later. In face-to-face settings, simply the lack of a witty retort may end the dialogue.
It may also not be surprising that sexist or racist posts lead to unfriending. What may be more surprising is that people post about these topics at all. My research found that very few people perceive posts they write as racist, but far more people viewed these same posts as offensive and therefore dissolved that relationship.
Want to avoid losing online connections? Consider how others may interpret your posts before you share with the world.
The action of unfriending can also be triggered by real world encounters. When there is a perception of bad behavior, such as breaking someone’s trust, doing a misdeed, or some form of betrayal, the online and offline relationship may dissolve. Other triggers include moving to a new area, changes in relationship status (breaking up, divorce, etc.), and learning new information that was unknown when the friendship was formed.
For example, two people may have been friends because they were neighbors and wanted to keep in touch and engage in social surveillance. However, when one of the friends moves, the relationship may no longer need to be maintained.
Some people ask why unfriending occurs at all when there are other options for seeing less of that acquaintance who shares images of their lunch every day. Why not just unfollow the person’s posts, or even temporarily stop seeing them (“snooze”) for 30 days? The common answer is that people tend to behave with a sense of integrity. If two people are truly no longer friends, they feel compelled to signal the end of the relationship in their online world.
The results can help business leaders become aware of topics to avoid to maintain their online relationships. Try to write posts about topics that are important to your audience, avoid politics and religion, double check to determine whether someone will interpret your post as racist, sexist, etc.
There are exceptions to these rules - if you are posting for a political organization, then politics are what you will be posting about, and the same is true for religious organizations. There are platform-specific norms that most users follow. It may be acceptable to post the cute kitten video to your Facebook friends, but it may be unacceptable to post that video on the more professional LinkedIn.
Research on unfriending is not just about why relationships end but also what can strengthen relationship ties by avoiding certain behaviors.