If your friends list on social media is over 150 people, it might be time to clean house this Sunday.
There’s a holiday for practically everything — even pruning your collection of friends on social media. Sunday is National Unfriend Day, which was started in 2010 by late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel. Shrinking your social circle has a number of benefits, according to Natalie Pennington, a communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose dissertation, cited in a university release, focuses on the effects of unfriending and unfollowing through social media.
“Unfriending is the chance to be mindful in how you engage with social media. It is about increasing your awareness of your digital audience so that when you post a status update or scroll a newsfeed, you’re connecting with people who you know and care about,” Pennington said in an email.
The average person can’t truly maintain a network of hundreds or thousands of friends. Technically, our brains can only keep up with 150 people, max, according to Oxford University research.
But how do you decide when and how to make cuts in your online social circle? Life events can trigger large-scale friending and unfriending patterns, Pennington’s research found — for example, when you move to a new place, you add people as you meet them.
People might also choose to unfriend someone on Facebook because of oversharing or conflicting views, like those around politics, Pennington said.
Friendships — online or otherwise — don’t typically start based on political beliefs, but if you find out later that someone is particularly outspoken about something you disagree with, you might unfriend them. Pennington predicts that with the current polarized political climate, the election year 2020 could see another mass unfriending, as we saw in the 2016 election.
Pennington noted that Twitter and Instagram can have different rules than Facebook does on National Unfriend Day.
“I would actually argue it is easier to remove someone on these sites because there’s less pressure when they can still follow you if they wanted to see what you’ve got going on,” she said.
In addition, social media algorithms that arrange your newsfeed a certain way can have an impact on unfriending. The algorithms can give a false impression that people are posting a lot, when really you’re just seeing their content more often, Pennington said.
Even though we may have weak ties with many of our online friends and followers, Pennington said keeping a big friends list on social media can help us obtain more diverse information, like product recommendations or advice (even though Facebook probably isn’t the best place for the latter). We might also hold onto distant acquaintances because we think we might need something from them later.
In other cases, we avoid unfriending someone because we want to avoid a confrontation and save face, Pennington said. These instances generally lead someone to choose to unfollow or mute the friend in question, rather than actually unfriend them. Kimmel suggested a formula to help pare down your social media circle, which Pennington agreed with: Ask whether or not they would help you move, or you would help them move. If you are, the person is probably worth keeping around. The likelihood of having to justify your reasons for unfriending someone to their face is pretty small, she said.
Pennington’s advice is to set time aside to go through your friends list and be honest with yourself. Think about who you haven’t spoken to in years or interacted with on the site. She also encourages using the 30-day “snooze” feature on Facebook if someone’s posts are getting to you.
“I’d argue that National Unfriend Day isn’t so much about saying ‘no we aren’t friends anymore,’ but placing value and meaning behind what it means to be a friend,” she said.