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Michael Taft

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What Happens When You Get 'Unfriended'

Posted: 11/11/11 08:27 AM ET

How do you react when somebody defriends you on Facebook? Jennifer Christine Harris, a Des Moines, Iowa woman, reacted by sneaking over to a house in the dark of night. Sleeping soundly within were her old friend, Nikki Rasmussen, and Nikki's husband, Jim. Jennifer then set fire to the house, apparently hoping that Nikki and Jim would be killed in the resulting blaze. The reason? According to the police report, it was because Nikki had unfriended Jennifer on Facebook. Then there was the drunk Texas man who last month beat his estranged wife for failing to "like" a poignant Facebook post he had made about the anniversary of his mother's death.

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 about 25 people. We are deeply hardwired for social interaction, so much so that lack of social interaction is considered a strong form of punishment (as in the case of solitary confinement). Denunciations of our culture's paucity of meaningful connections appear everywhere from Marx to "The Graduate," the result of a condition that is referred to as "social estrangement," or the feeling of being separated from our community. In fact, a 2006 study from Duke University discovered that about 25 percent of Americans lack any significant social support whatsoever. This is a negative condition for a human primate, as being separated from the group in the deep past meant certain death, and even until recently would have been dangerous for most people. Perhaps the saddest symptom of isolation in the modern world is the plethora of mummified bodies of deceased seniors found in big cities every year.

While some scholars feel that technology-based friendships are an impoverished version of in-person friendships, in effect increasing our social isolation, it is still the case that these online relationships trigger our social emotions just as effectively as more conventional sorts of relationships. Cyber-bullying has caught the attention of MTV, MIT, even the President of the United States, because malicious social attacks online can cause teenagers -- who are in the most sensitive stage of social formation -- to have extreme reactions, including suicide. After all, there's a reason that the movie about Facebook was called "The Social Network": For many individuals, these sites are visual representations of their social cred.

Our systems of social organization co-evolved with a set of special emotional signals that facilitate social interactions. Pride, envy, altruism and shame are examples of emotions that exist to help us navigate and regulate our interactions in the social arena. Given the importance of social status to both our personal survival and our genetic survival, positive social signals (signs that we are important and a valuable member of the group) are like food, air, and water to human beings. Negative social signals (signs that we are not important to the group) are extremely unpleasant, and cause most of us to experience a strong emotional sting. Think about the power of such epithets as "nobody," "bum," "loser" and "waste of space." Just as bad, or perhaps worse, is being ignored. Nothing says "you don't matter" to a primate like being ignored.

Which leads us back to Jennifer Christine Harris setting her friend's house on fire. Yes, it wasn't just that Rasmussen had unfriended her, there is a whole backstory of a party invite that wasn't filling up. This led to an altercation and eventually to the dreaded unfriending, and together these must have left Harris feeling socially dissed, unimportant, a nobody. As silly as the provocation seems, and as over-extreme the reaction (attempted homicide), it underscores just how seriously we human beings take our social status signals.

Our ancient craving for social connection makes modern devices like cell phones and social websites irresistible, and our hardwired desire for social status makes even something like Facebook friend count important to us. The Stone Age brain didn't evolve to understand the difference between losing a friend on the savanna and getting unfriended on FB. The net result is the same, as far as our social emotions are concerned. Just notice how you feel, next time somebody makes friends with you or breaks up with you with a text message.