Social media

Unfriend someone on Facebook? They may unfriend you back ... in real life

Feb. 4, 2013 at 6:06 PM ET

Reuters file /
In the real world "when a friendship ends it usually just fades away," says a researcher; on Facebook, "it can be abruptly terminated with one party declaring the friendship over."

If you unfriend someone on Facebook, you run the chances of losing them as a friend in real life, according to a new study. Nearly half of those who are unfriended by someone say they would avoid that person in real life, says the study's author.

"People think social networks are just for fun," Christopher Sibona said in a statement. "But in fact what you do on those sites can have real-world consequences."

Sibona, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Denver Business School's computer science and information systems program, said 50 percent of unfriended folks say they wouldn't avoid the unfriender — bombs away and all, they're fine. Another 10 percent said they were unsure what they would do. Women "said they would avoid contact more than men," although Sibona doesn't know why.

His survey, presented at the 2013 Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, was based on 582 responses gathered using Twitter.

Sibona said he found six factors that "predicted whether someone would avoid a person who unfriended them." They are:

  • If the person discussed the (unfriending) event after it happened.
  • If the emotional response to the unfriending was extremely negative.
  • If the person unfriended believed the action was due to offline behavior.
  • The geographical distance between the two.
  • If the troubled relationship was discussed prior to the unfriending.
  • How strong the person valued the relationship before the unfriending.

"The No. 1 predictor was whether the person who said the relationship was over talked about it to someone else," Sibona said. "Talking to someone is a public declaration that the friendship is over."

Also, "those who felt they had behaved badly offline and were being punished for that through unfriending also tended to avoid future contact."

While the "cost of maintaining online relationships is really low," Sibona argues, in real life, the costs are higher.

"In the real world, you have to talk to people, go see them to maintain face-to-face relationships. That's not the case in online relationships," he said.

And while real-world relationships can simply fade away, he said, on Facebook, abrupt termination of a relationship through unfriending has an "air of unreality to it," but with different consequences.

"We are still trying to come to grips as a society on how to handle elements of social media," he said. "The etiquette is different and often quite stark."

Two years ago, Sibona did a study on why people are unfriended on the social network. Among the reasons then: "frequent, unimportant posts"; "polarizing posts usually about politics or religion"; "inappropriate posts involving sexist, racist remarks"; and, "boring everyday life posts about children, food, spouses, etc."

Sibona said his new study shows the power of "being ostracized on social media," which can lead to a less of a feeling of belonging and reduced self-esteem.

Unfriending, he said, "may be viewed as a form of social exclusion. The study makes clear that unfriending is meaningful and has important psychological consequences for those to whom it occurs."

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