National Unfriend Day

‘Unfollowing’ – The Art Of Rejection?

November 17th is National Unfriend Day, a day when you are encouraged to cull your friends on Facebook and other social media accounts. The idea, originated by US TV host Jimmy Kimmel, is to focus on the true meaning of friendship by removing people you no longer consider true friends from your social media accounts.

Sounds like a good idea, with the average person having 155 friends on Facebook, most of whom we never interact with, we could all probably trim our friend count down a little bit. But before you go clicking that unfriend button, maybe you should stop to think about how the person on the other end feels about your rejection.

Seriously, does it really matter? Well, yes, according to two recent studies from the University of Colorado unfriending even a casual acquaintance can cause serious emotional stress to the recipient.

Understanding the psychology of social media

To understand why we need to look at the psychology of social media use. According to Wesleyan University, social psychologist Kip Williams, our friends on Facebook are not entirely frivolous. The friends we have on social media help us build our sense of inclusion and acceptance in the wider social system.

In effect, we use our Facebook friends as a barometer for our popularity and to give us a sense of self-worth. The more friends we have the more popular we feel and the more confident we are. Therefore losing friends on Facebook, even one, can challenge our self-esteem making us feel excluded and less valued.

How unfriending affects the recipient

To highlight this, let’s think about this from the other person’s perspective. What is actually going through the mind of the recipient when you click the unfriend button?

How the person reacts will depend on how close they were to you and how often you communicated with them. If it was someone you barely know, a friend of a friend, perhaps, they are not likely to be negatively affected by your actions. So go ahead and click that unfriend button.

But if you unfriend someone you were once close to, a former college buddy perhaps, or someone you have had regular interactions with. They will likely take your rejection much more personally. How hard they take it will depend on their psychological need for acceptance, which they most likely measure using Facebook friend counts.

Some people have developed dependencies on social media

According to Professor Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of digital interactions at California State University. Some people have developed dependencies on social media platforms to help confirm their social value. Such people often use tools to closely monitor friend counts, hunting down the identity of ‘unfollowers’ with religious zeal.

Rejection for these people, no matter how closely they are acquainted, can often lead to feelings of low self-worth. It may be tempting to characterize such people as needy and insecure but that discounts one key differentiating factor between social media and real-life interactions. Social media interaction is a public not private conversation.

For example, if we don’t like interacting with someone in real life we can simply avoid them and no harm is done. But online, unfriending or unfollowing someone is a very deliberate act which can be seen by the recipient. This in effect is a very public act of personal rejection which no-one wants to endure.

So while it may be tempting to unfriend a bunch of people this Unfriend Day, you might want to think about how your actions may affect the recipient first. Social media is a great tool if used correctly, but it is easy to forget that each of those ‘friends’ in your friend list is a real person with complex feelings and emotions.

So maybe it’s time to start treating our friend and follower lists with the same level of humility as we do our real-life friends and family. Maybe we should forget about National Unfriend Day and have a National Make Friends day instead?!