The Art of the Unfriend

When social networking becomes social stress.

Illustration by Remy Labesque

In the social world there has been a power surge. Power is defined as “work done or energy transferred per unit of time.” Social networking sites amplify our social power by increasing the speed with which we can complete “work.” These digital networks enable us to communicate with more people across greater distances. But amplified social activity creates amplified social stress. This power pressures us to join, connect, respond, recommend, and "poke." By doing so it creates a dilemma: How can we reap the benefits of social networking without succumbing to unwanted demands?

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed the number 150 as the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.” Does Dunbar’s theory apply to the online world? Should we set that standard to mitigate the stress of these emerging social dilemmas?

One mega-Facebooker recently needed a surge protector when his friend list sprawled to more than 400; he set about unfriending hundreds of them. He publicly announced his mass unfriend, and explained that he was attempting to comply with Dunbar’s law. The ensuing flurry of posts to his wall expressed congrats, curiosity, skepticism, and outrage.

Friendship in the physical world is a dynamic concept. If social connections aren’t actively maintained, they degrade over time. Phone calls and emails become less frequent, until eventually one isn’t returned. When we’re too busy to maintain a connection in the physical world, that connection fades away and we have more energy available for other priorities. You could say the physical world brings about passive (albeit natural) unfriending. The online world of social networks, however, requires an active, premeditated “ignore” or, worse, a “remove.”

While researching this article, we informally surveyed our friends and colleagues around the office, and we heard myriad reasons why they found it necessary to unfriend someone. Reasons for excommunication ranged from the romantic (“girls I’ve dated briefly”) to the political (“she listed her status as ‘I deeply respect Sarah Palin’”). The most common cause cited for unfriending was to limit one’s social network to the people with whom one is currently interested (as opposed to those “who I was never really friends with in high school”).

Thankfully, the process of unfriending is mercifully discreet. Users don’t receive any notification when they’re unfriended, and in many cases they’re unlikely to notice. Still, the possibility remains that the unfriended could discover that they have been pruned and take offense. None of us happily contemplate the notion that someone might consider us undesirable or uninteresting. And fear of an unfriend’s wrath prevents many users from right-sizing their social networks.

Which leads us to the mega-Facebooker’s application of Dunbar’s original theory to social groups, in which each member is a physical presence and understands how they fit into the larger structure. This interdependence is essential — think villages, tribes, even businesses. Dunbar arrived at his number by studying primates and their interrelationships and then extrapolating the results to human groups such as nomadic tribes. But if your Facebook world is like ours, it’s not made up of a closed, interdependent social group. Perhaps Dunbar’s number cannot be applied in the online world.

There is no universally ideal size for an online social network. People we know are satisfied with networks that range from 37 to 661 friends. Some superfrienders seem to treat their friend list as a trophy of their social prowess. But most lists seem calibrated to balance reach with relevance. One multilingual friend has his online world divided by language (Facebook for his current English-speaking social circle, and the Dutch equivalent, Hyves, for friends from his past life). Interestingly, his networks each hover near Dunbar’s number. Perhaps the right size for a network is a function of the user’s goals for participating in that community.

A rule that applies to the time it takes to get a job done (work will grow to fill the available time) or to electricity (demand grows to match the available supply), also applies to social power. As more becomes available, our lives increasingly fill with moments necessitating its use.

What does this mean for us as designers? Don’t let anthropological theory determine your feature set; let the user’s thirst be your guide. When it comes to humans connecting and disconnecting, assume that thirst is unquenchable.

What does this mean for us as members of digital social communities? If we limit our friends to the type of people we wish to share ourselves with, we’ll have a satisfying experience. But to achieve this, we must avoid the power surge of social expectations and define friendship for ourselves. The real lesson from the story of Facebook and Dunbar’s number is the need to resist the stress amplified by social networking.

Elizabeth Roche is an associate creative director in frog’s Stuttgart studio, and Kevin Hutchinson is a senior interaction designer in frog’s San Francisco studio.