Though the word “unfriend” has an 800-year history, it’s only just qualified for inclusion in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and will make its debut in the latest edition alongside words like “catfish,” “crowdfunding,” “selfie” and “dubstep.” “Unfriend,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been used as a synonym for “enemy” since the thirteenth century, and began its career as a verb in 1659, when Thomas Fuller, an English clergyman, wrote in The Appeal of Injured Innocence: “I hope, sir, that we are not mutually un-friended by this difference which hath happened betwixt us.” In 2003, the term was introduced as the verb Facebook users know today—“To remove (a person) from a list of friends or contacts on a social networking web site.” Facebook itself played a role in crystalizing the term, by replacing the “remove friend” button with an “unfriend” option.
Whatever you call it, unfriending is an unnaturally abrupt way to signal the end of a relationship. As University of Colorado Denver researcher Christopher Sibona notes, “Friendship formation in the real world has more nuance than in the online world,” and the same principle applies to friendship termination. Ending a friendship online—or even signifying online that you consider a relationship over—may be more dramatic than seeing your relationship dissolve in real life. “Unlike real world relationships that may simply fade without either member making a conscious decision about the dissolution, online unfriending is a conscious and public decision,” write Sibona and his University of Colorado Denver colleague Steven Walczak. “Some friendships end in conflict, but most simply fade away.”
What prompts a Facebook user to “unfriend”? For a paper they presented to the 2011 Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Sibona and Walczak surveyed 690 Facebook users on their motives for “unfriending.” They managed to identify six behaviors that consistently provoked a removal, four of which occurred online and two of which reflected offline actions. The online offenses include posting too often; posting on polarizing topics like politics or religion; posting messages that were racist, sexist or otherwise “inappropriate”; or posting on topics that were too boring, like meals and pets. The offline behaviors that warranted unfriending correlate with reasons people end friendships in real life—a change in the relationship, like a breakup, or a specific misdeed like a betrayal. Sibona and Walczak also collected data on the source of the friend requests, and found that the person who initiated the request was more likely to be unfriended.
The online impact of unfriending is clear: The connection is gone. But how does it influence the relationship in the real world? Sibona investigated the real-life fallout of Facebook unfriending for a paper he presented at the 2013 Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences. He contacted thousands of people who had tweeted about being unfriended, and got 1,552 of them to complete a survey about the experience and aftermath of realizing they’d been unfriended. 40.3 percent of respondents admitted that they would feel uncomfortable seeing the person who’d unfriended them in real life, and 31.5 percent said they would actually avoid the person. (Surveying people who tweeted about being unfriended, though, might skew the sample towards the unusually pissed-off.)
Sibona also looked at the factors affecting the likelihood that the snubbed party would avoid the unfriender in real life. The closer the relationship in real life, and the more years the pair had spent as friends, the more likely the relationship would survive the unfriending; greater geographical distance and perception that the unfriending was a response to offline behavior, meanwhile, increased the chance of avoidance. Should be enough to make you think twice before culling your friend list.