I was on a photo shoot last September with some students who hadn’t seen each other in a while.
When they were about to say their goodbyes, Chris Forepaugh, a criminal justice graduate student, shook hands with his friend and fellow student, Larry Johnson. “Do I have you on Snap?” Larry asked.
Then they added each other and both simultaneously said, “See you on Snap!”
See you on Snapchat?
I wondered if they would get together or just continue swiping through each other’s stories. They currently live in the same city. Would they get lunch sometime? Or would Snapchat suffice? And why did I care so much if they’d ever — physically — see each other again?
I asked Natalie Pennington about the students’ responses. She’s a communication studies professor, who joined UNLV last fall.
“I’m not surprised,” she said with a laugh. Pennington studies social media’s multiple effects on interpersonal relationships, including the impact on our health and the grieving process.
She described the students’ interaction as a commemorative one.
“Commemorative relationships signify an event individuals tie to something in their lives. They are usually positive experiences. You’re connected to someone who reminds you of that time in your life,” Pennington said.
Forepaugh said this is why Snapchat has been the best way for him to stay connected to his former classmate. They had worked on an intensive research project as undergraduates.
“It’s a nice way to basically stay in each others’ lives without constantly talking to each other — a way to check in on each other,” he said.
Later that fall, Forepaugh ran into his friend at the gym but they didn’t plan a meetup.
“It doesn’t mean I may not reach out and catch up. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen," he explained. "But it hasn’t happened yet. It’s the life of a grad student. Your social life slows down during the semester and picks up over summer.”
You’ve Got a “Friend” In Me
Thanks to social networking, your relationships never end. Relationships now linger in the void – the virtual void.
While some of us want to have as many online “friends” as possible, others may want to apply the popular KonMari de-cluttering method to their social media feeds. However, Pennington found there are reasons why people hesitate to “unfriend.”
She looked at what individuals considered a strong tie versus weak tie. She studied Facebook because of its high user rate as compared to other platforms. Some may unfollow or use the mute function, but the majority of people almost always keep a friend online, she said.
- Social capital — Pennington says that individuals keep people due to potential business and career opportunities. You may not like the person, but you may need each other later.
- Nostalgia factor — Someone in your life reminds you of a positive experience. You may have seen this “On this day” flashback feature on Facebook. You’re drawn into memories. In this scenario, this is classified as a commemorative relationship.
- The social comparison — People sometimes stay in touch online to lurk around. Even though you haven’t actively engaged with an individual, you’re curious about their lives. Conversely, you may like to casually post the good stuff in your life for others to see.
The social comparison phenomenon isn’t something new. Yet, seeing someone’s life unfold online can affect your wellbeing, Pennington said.
It can make you feel better that your life is going better than theirs; or make you feel bad about how your life is just so-so. I mean, what’s a stroll around Red Rock Canyon boardwalk compared to a friend’s pictures of climbing Mount Everest?
Forming online relationships without having a balance of real-life, in-person relationships can impact your health, Pennington said.
“You’re socially snacking on empty calories,” she explained. “You’ll learn about a friend, and for a moment, feel like you’re full but you haven’t interacted with anyone. A few hours later, you’re hungry again.”
Your insecurities and your self-esteem can be exhibited in real life and on social media, Pennington said.
So, do you need 1,000-plus friends? Do you need to follow more than 1,000 people? Pennington recommends taking a moment to examine whether you need a digital diet or if you’re just fine with how you’re using your social networking time.
Reasons why you would want to unfriend, according to Pennington:
- Algorithms — If you decrease the number of individuals you’re connected with, you may be able to see the close friends and individuals you’re genuinely interested in.
- Self-care —Why keep someone around you wouldn’t want to talk to? If they are given to saying or posting something that makes you unhappy or frustrated, you can walk away from that communication. Put your health and wellbeing first.
Using social media is about training yourself – really think about it like developing a good habit – to have the communication competence “that will help you make the right choices to interact with people that help you feel better every day. That’s what it comes down to,” Pennington said.