That disarming feeling some people get when no one likes their post or photo on Facebook is not imaginary. A new study has found rejection on social media, even if unintended, can lower self-esteem and affect our sense of belonging.
The study, by researchers from the University of Queensland, found antisocial behaviours such as "lurking" and "ostracism" are increasingly subverting our online habits and wellbeing.
For the report, Threats to belonging on Facebook: lurking and ostracism, the researchers asked Facebook users two key questions: "What would happen if you weren't allowed to share information on Facebook for 48 hours?" and, "What if nobody engaged with your status updates?"
The first group was divided into "lurkers" who weren't allowed to share information for 48 hours. In the second group, half of the participants felt "ostracised" when they unwittingly used accounts whose status updates did not receive any feedback.
The study found that users who were not allowed to share information, and who did not receive feedback on their updates, had lower levels of belonging, control, meaning in their existence, and lower self-esteem.
One of the users who was prevented from posting anything said: "I did not enjoy having to stop sharing on social media! Felt like being grounded and watching my friends play outside..."
Stephanie Tobin, the lead researcher, said the biggest contributor to belongingness was positive interactions in the context of ongoing relationships.
"The feeling of a sense of connection in the moment can spill over to a connection with a group, like society," Tobin, a lecturer at the university's school of psychology, said.
Facebook could potentially meet this need, she said, but when users were forced to "lurk" or were "ostracised", belonging suffered.
"It's different from having a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation where you're getting all the non-verbal feedback and there's a clear need to respond immediately. Facebook is diffused. When you put something out there people don't have that sense of obligation to respond straight away."
Tobin said that if the need for belonging wasn't being met, people would go elsewhere for this positive reinforcement.
This view was shared by Brady Robards, a sociology lecturer at the University of Tasmania, who pointed to the rise of social networking apps such as Snapchat and Instagram as indicators of this trend.
As new Facebook features became available, users were also developing new habits, Robards said, such as grouping their best friends, and unsubscribing from all their friends' news feeds. Instead they were manually checking individual profiles to get their updates.
Our online habits were starting to reflect real life, he said, where our lurking was "invisible". "There is an important place for listening," Robards said. "Listening and lurking are similar, in some ways. Listening can be really productive... it's like reading without disrupting other people's conversations.
"It's still relatively new. We don't have strict conventions and as people navigate in different kinds of ways, those strategies will start to be cemented."
- The Age