New rules for dissolving relationships

New rules for dissolving relationships

The dynamics of Twitter's 'unfollow'

As individuals and companies move towards a fuller embrace of social media platforms, it becomes imperative to understand the sociology of social media - to analyse it beyond its technical aspects. One main facet of social media is its emphasis on relationships.

According to Professor Sue B. Moon from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), there are two basic variables when analysing relationships in personal networks: building and breaking a relationship. There is, however, a lack of relationship break-up data in the sociology of online social networks as the platforms are designed to create and foster relationships. "It has been hard to capture and define 'break-ups'," she pointed out. The 'unfollow' action in Twitter, thus, offers a unique opportunity to researchers to study the dissolution of an online relationship," added the Professor.

Professor Sue Moon was presenting a study of Twitter users 'unfollow' behaviour at the recent Third International Conference on Social Informatics (SocInfo'11) hosted by the Singapore Management University and supported by the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, as well as the International Communication Association (ICA) and Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF).

"'Unfollow' in Twitter is an intentional action to break a relationship on the social media site, where there is no need for approval and no notification to the 'unfollowed' user," she explained.

Unfollow factors

The study conducted by Professor Sue Moon and other researchers from KAIST involved collecting daily snapshots of 1.2 million Korean-speaking users for 51 days and all their tweets.

According to their study, 43 percent of active users 'unfollow' at least once in 51 days, and the average unfollow per person is 15 to 16.

Based on this study, the researches found four major factors correlate with 'unfollow':

1. Reciprocity of relationships: One-way relationships are fragile and the likelihood of getting broken is two and a half times higher.

2. Duration of a relationship: Newer relationships are more fragile.

3. Followee's informativeness: Non-informative relationships are fragile. In this case, Retweeted users are less likely to be 'unfollowed'.

4. Overlap of relationships: The more overlap in relations among users, the less likely it is to be 'unfollowed'.

The researchers also conducted interviews with 22 respondents to understand motivations behind 'unfollow' behaviour. Based on this supplementary research, Sue Moon noted there are other factors crucial for 'unfollow' decisions.

"The number one reason for 'unfollow' is Tweet burstiness, where a person's Tweets dominate the timeline," Sue Moon said.

The second and third factors are uninteresting topics and mundane details, she added.

Tweets about political issues are also a reason for 'unfollow' actions, she said.

Sue Moon also pointed out that the lack of interaction in Twitter is not necessarily a good indicator of break-ups. "85.6 percent of relationships do not involve any single Reply, Mention, or Retweet. 96.3 percent involve three or fewer," she said.

"This is why 'unfollow' is important to study (relationship) break-up," she highlighted.

"We confirm from our analysis that 'unfollow' is prevalent and irrelevant to the volume of interaction," concluded Sue Moon.

Failed approach

Other statistics that came out of the study point out to the growing popularity of Twitter. Based on the KAIST researchers study, Korean Twitter users grew from 7000 to 8000 per day in 2010. Twitter now has over 400 million users worldwide.

Twitter, as with other social networking websites, continues to grow on a huge scale and provides an attractive medium for businesses to reach out to customers.

However, many have failed to use social media effectively to its fullest potential and strategically to achieve the expected outcomes. There have been cases of companies in Korea shutting down their Twitter account shortly after launching them, said Sue Moon in a brief interview after her presentation.

Marketing campaigns launched on other social media sites have also failed for global companies. For instance, Burger King implemented a social media marketing campaign, where it rewarded its Whopper burger for every 10 friendship 'sacrifices' on Facebook. The fast-food chain eventually called off the campaign as it made people extremely upset, said Sue Moon.

Businesses need to be careful when they tap social media. According to Sue Moon, users actually take online etiquette very seriously.

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