If You Think Your Facebook “Friends” Don’t Like You, They Probably Don’t

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 8 2012 1:24 PM

If You Think Your Facebook “Friends” Don’t Like You, They Probably Don’t

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Girls show their Facebook walls on their mobile devices in Jakarta on February 2, 2012.

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s some grist for your paranoia: The more you value Facebook as a social outlet, the more your Facebook friends probably just wish you’d shut up. A study on confidence, emotional expression, and Facebook curation found that people likely to see Zuckerberg’s virtual community as a haven are also more likely to annoy their contacts.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

In the study designed by University of Waterloo graduate student Amanda Forest and her adviser, Joanne Wood, undergraduates were assessed with a standard self-esteem test and placed on a spectrum from more to less confident. When asked what they thought of Facebook, those with lower confidence were likelier to describe a safe space in which friendships were unencumbered by awkward face-to-face interactions. Forest and Wood then collected the students’ 10 most recent status updates. Less secure students tended to post negative updates ( “[Name] is upset b/c her phone got stolen :@”), while self-assured ones tended to gush ( “[Name] is lucky to have such terrific friends and is looking forward to a great day tomorrow!”)

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Undergraduate volunteers read the batches of updates and rated how much they liked the strangers who wrote them. It turns out that, on Facebook, impatience for whining trounces sympathy: Raters said they liked students posting negative updates less. (I asked Forest about the possibility of volunteers reading cheerful posts ironically, or interpreting the phone update, for instance, not as a gripe but as a PSA that the posting student was unable to receive texts or calls. Since the raters also assigned each status a positive or negative score, Forest said, the researchers were able to correlate the perceived tone of an update to the favorability of its response.)

It’s not hard to imagine how the less confident students, despite moving in a forum that promised connections galore, might grow more isolated, revving the cycle all over again.

I find these results oddly heartbreaking. It seems an irony typical of the Internet that the people who feel safest expressing themselves online actually damage their social standing when they do so. Not because they’re somehow opting out of the real world, as Facebook critics like to insist, but because they are lulled into relaxing their facades. Cheery icons and a shiny, sanitized format make it easy to project the friendliness of a diary onto the Facebook community. Yet the site doesn’t “change” your audience so much as disguise it. Those with low self-esteem may treasure Facebook because it eliminates situations in which social feedback is inevitable (whereas you can’t help seeing your friend’s aggrieved expression when you slip up in person). But you need live feedback to teach you to navigate relationships with grace. 

We’ve heard how Internet anonymity—or the illusion of it—can give people license to act like boors. Yet it seems we’re less attuned to the dangers of seeing other Internet users as anonymous or unreal. Social networking sites, with their endlessly personalized apps, can sometimes feel less like meeting places than giant mirrors (Facebook for me has always had the echoey effect of a mansion that a crowd of partiers has just vacated.) Amanda Forest’s study should remind us that when we’re online, for better or for worse, we’re not alone.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.