This post is part of Mashable's Spring Cleaning Week. Just a little something to distract you from the eternal dread of constantly wiping all those fingerprints off your screen.
If we all sought to live our lives like the very best versions of ourselves, we'd treat our social media accounts like we do our closets.
We'd sift through our news feeds like we do old clothes, cutting ties with people we no longer feel connected to.
The fact that there are (usually) real humans behind these accounts complicates this effort. Namely: Sometimes we feel really, really guilty unfollowing former friends online.
But because we spend so much time online, curating what we see might be worth the effort. To help you get to cleaning up your social media friend list, I asked three psychologists and one sociologist for their theories on why we feel so bad and how we can get over it.
Where does the guilt come from?
"Guilt seems to occur when people feel they might be violating some kind of standard, and they think their behavior’s controllable," says Michael Andreychik, associate professor of psychology at Fairfield University, whose research includes the study of both positive and negative intergroup relationships.
Though Andreychik notes that we're excellent at justifying our behaviors to avoid guilt, it's still uncomfortable to feel that we've violated the "implicit standard" of friendship, even when we haven't been in contact with a friend for years.
Our online lives are our real lives
Though our standards for friendship might be rooted in the real world, it's natural for those standards to inform the way we interact with others online.
"We forget that the virtual world is kind of an extension of the physical world that we live in," says Evelyn Bilias Lolis, assistant professor of special education and school psychology, also at Fairfield University. "Individuals just generally have, sometimes, difficulties in setting personal boundaries, and I think that that can happen in your personal life and your professional life, physically, as well as online."
Social media connections are connections all the same
For many of us, not everyone we're connected with online is someone we've met in real life. But as Dustin Kidd, associate professor of sociology at Temple University tells me, these "weak ties" still play an important role in our "sense of connectedness."
People need connection, he says, "and when those connections break down, we start to feel isolated from society, and in the age of social media, those social media connections have become part of the way that we feel integrated into the larger society."
Kidd frames it this way: Imagine you're following 3,000 people, and you're looking to cut that number to 500. Might curating your followers to a selection of friends, family, colleagues, and more lead to a more satisfying online experience? Probably! But to get there, he says, you'll need to evaluate your relationship to 2,500 separate people, and naturally, that's going to bring up a lot of baggage. This can include concerns that those people might 1) notice and 2) confront us about it, which brings us to ...
We're afraid of how unfollowing might affect someone's perception of us.
Jaclyn Moloney, visiting assistant professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary whose research deals with shame and guilt in close relationships, posits that we fear our connections will notice us unfollowing them, and that doing so will reflect poorly on us.
"Most people like to have a positive self image in general, and I think that applies to their social media presence as well," she says. "It almost seems like you’re sort of rejecting someone if you unfollow them." And naturally, it feels worse when we're unfollowing people we used to know in real life.
"Strangers – you feel bad because you’re severing a social tie even though it’s kind of arbitrary, but when it’s someone you do know, I think that fear of seeming like a bad person for unfollowing might be stronger."
How to get over it:
Now that we've tossed out a few theories as to why this process can be so challenging, let's see what we can do to mitigate the stress associated with cleaning house online.
It's OK to put yourself first.
In my joint conversation with Lolis and Andreychik, both suggested evaluating our online relationships in terms of their value to us, and their effect on us.
If the content someone is sharing online isn't, as Lolis says, "serving you in some way that is positive," then it might be time to reassess that connection.
As Andreychik suggests, it's fair to sever connections – both the toxic kind and the kind that fade naturally – if they no longer fit into our lives. This, he says, might leave room for us to prioritize relationships that matter to us currently.
"I think we ordinarily do a very good job getting rid of some of those guilt feelings already – before they even get to us – and when we don’t, I think it can be good to try to put things in perspective," he says.
Lolis echos that sentiment, and suggests a one-to-10 scaling strategy to determine how the loss of a specific social connection might make us feel. (In this case, 10 is a terrible sense of guilt; one is pure relief.)
"That’s a real, tangible thing," she says. What might in the moment feel like an eight or nine might be closer to a two or a three when placed in perspective with the other stressors in our lives.
The way we share online is changing, and that's a good thing.
The debate over online privacy isn't a new topic, but it's a particularly salient one here, given the data-sharing crises currently plaguing major social networks. (The best current example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which compromised data from at least 87 million Facebook users.)
Our relationships with these social networks have changed over time and, as Moloney notes, the "social norms" of online friendship are changing, too.
While a decade ago, it was normal and expected to connect with acquaintances and people with whom we share loose connections, Moloney says these norms are changing.
"People are protecting their privacy a little bit more," she says. "I don’t think they should feel bad [about wanting to limit their online circle]. I think people do, but it’s maybe kind of shifting a little bit."
Consider the likelihood that whoever you unfollow just won't care.
If, after all this, we're still struggling to hit that "Unfollow" button, we should consider the likelihood that no one (no one!) really cares what we do online.
For proof, Moloney points us to "the spotlight effect," the term for our tendencies to assume that people are closely following what we do.
"We think everyone’s going to notice our behaviors or thoughts or feelings, but really, a lot of times we’re doing things and people don’t even notice it – especially bad behavior or negative things," she says.
She posits that this happens with social media as well. "We think someone’s going to know if we unfollow them, but in actuality they probably have no clue and maybe don’t even care."
You can do it!
Ultimately, there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting a better online experience for ourselves. And while getting there might take some self-reflection, it's a necessary step towards a more pleasant future.
As Lolis put it, "As we mature into adulthood, we hope that we can deal with things that are uncomfortable by first accepting that we’re going to feel uncomfortable, but then justifying the reason that we feel this is good for us."
It's like the moment before you rip off a bandage, she says: "You know it’s going to pinch for a minute ... You’re not going to like that feeling, but you justify it, and then you can move forward with what you need to do."