WASHINGTON -- Anyone who has ever labored over the wording, punctuation and appearance a Facebook status update and then been surprised by how few Likes or comments it draws knows it's a bad feeling.
"It feels pretty bad," says Dr. Stephanie Tobin, a researcher at The University of Queensland's School of Psychology.
In her study, "Threats to belonging on Facebook: Lurking and Ostracism," published in the journal Social Influence, the Australian researcher conducted two sets of tests that looked at how social media defines people, and how reaction to posts can affect one's sense of belonging and well-being.
"We took people who typically posted on Facebook at least once a week, and we asked half of them not to post anything for two days," says Tobin. "And we found that this actually lowered their sense of belonging and meaningful existence."
This setup produced the sensation of "lurking."
"Lurking is just a label people use to describe those who visit websites like Facebook and read information, but don't contribute," says Tobin.
Earlier research had suggested a connection between lurking in others' social networks and lower intimacy. Tobin doesn't think that connection is clear-cut.
"I think what you see in our study because we were able to manipulate the lurking behavior, it looks that that could also undermine your sense of connection with other people.
"So it becomes part of a cycle -- if you feel like you're not very close with the people in your online social networks, you contribute less. But because you're not actually interacting with anyone, that further undermines your sense of connection."
Set up to fail
Creating what feels like the perfect post, and getting little response can have dramatic results.
Tobin says participants were asked to post an interesting status update.
"We set it up so half of the people didn't get any comments or likes on their update," says Tobin. "This lowered their sense of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence."
The shunned posters had no idea they had been set up to receive no feedback.
"And that felt bad," says Tobin. "It made them not only feel disconnected, but it made them feel invisible and insecure."
The passive lurkers and those whose posts were ignored experienced the negative effects and felt less important as individuals, says Tobin. Shunned users also reported lower self-esteem and control.
"Whenever other people ignore us, it just makes us feel like we don't even exist," says Tobin.
Some studies showed that avoiding social networks produced temporary benefits, including lessened stress levels, yet other research suggests that social media helps avoid isolation.
"I think you get the most out of it whenever it's more of a conversation," says Tobin. "So, you're putting things out there and you're also getting validation from other people."
At the end of the research session, participants whose status updates were deliberately ignored were told about it, in order to eliminate long-term effects, says Tobin.
She adds that feeling blue over the lack of response isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"I think what it shows is we're just highly attuned to how we're fitting in with other people -- and that's actually quite adaptive."
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