How do you react when somebody unfriends you on Facebook? Jennifer Christine Harris, a Des Moines woman, reacted by sneaking over to her friend’s house in the dark of night and setting it on fire, apparently trying to murder her former Facebook friend. While there is some debate about the quality of technology-based friendships, it is still the case that these online relationships trigger our social emotions just as effectively as more conventional kinds of relationships. Malicious social attacks online can cause teenagers—who are in the most sensitive stage of social identity formation—to have extreme reactions, including suicide. Social networks are visual representations of each individual's cred, his or her value to the group.
Modern society does not give us many opportunities for meaningful connection with other human beings. We are intensely social animals, who evolved to live and work together in small, extremely closely knit units of a few dozen people. We are hardwired for tight social interaction, so much so that the lack of it—solitary confinement—is our most extreme form of punishment short of the death penalty. The amount of human contact we have affects everything from mental health to our ability to recover from disease. Yet a 2006 study from Duke University discovered that about 25 percent of Americans lack any significant social support whatsoever.
According to the police report, Jennifer was unfriended on Facebook after a fight about a party the two women were planning that nobody seemed to want to come to. Jennifer was being publicly and socially humiliated, and because that activates our need to belong, such an experience can feel like a matter of life or death. To our brains, which still operate on programming largely established when we lived in the wild, social status is a predictor of our ability to survive. If we were in the group, we lived; if we were left alone outside the group, we died. Even up until about 100 years ago, being without social support would have been dangerous for most people in America. It still is for people in some vulnerable situations; there’s a plethora of mummified bodies of deceased seniors found in big cities every year.
Tangible signs that we are an important and valued member of the group are like food, air, and water to human beings. Negative social signals—signs that we are not valued by the group, that nobody cares about us—elicit a strong emotional sting. Think about how it feels to be called “nobody,” “bum,” “loser,” and “waste of space.” Even worse, nothing says that you don’t matter to anybody like being ignored.
Which leads us back to Jennifer setting her friend’s house on fire. From the outside it seems like a minor provocation and an extreme reaction. But our ancient craving for belonging makes the pull of modern devices like cellphones and social websites irresistible. Our hardwired instinct for social status makes even something as ephemeral as a Facebook friend count as more important than it rationally should be. Between the party that nobody wanted to come to and being unfriended, Jennifer may have felt socially dissed, unimportant, a nobody. It's easy wonder how anyone could go so ballistic over a mere unfriending, the click of a seemingly insignificant button, but it's not too far removed from getting tossed out alone on the savanna. We want to be important, valued, liked by others, and it's hard to stomach when we don't get the validation we crave. Nobody likes being left alone in the wild, even on Facebook.
Do you notice when a friend drops you on Facebook? How does it make you feel if you do?
photo by Oli Dunkley