What is the point of Facebook? According to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues, the social network’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. But if you’ve ever got embroiled in a furious row about Brexit under the status of a guy you haven’t seen since sixth form, or felt the unbearable urge to de-friend your mum’s cousin after he posts another meninist meme, you’ll know that it’s not quite that simple.
In fact, one of the main reasons we maintain our Facebook accounts is precisely because we enjoy silently observing and judging – or “hate-reading” – our social media friends – according to a new study by the Open University.
Linguistics lecturers Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg wanted to investigate “incidents where online communication has gone awry – where people have accidentally given offence, or been offended by what other people have written or shared”.
They surveyed and interviewed a network of more than 100 Facebook users, and found that people continued to use the site even though it often left them feeling annoyed or offended.
But rather than challenging the offensive party or deleting them as a friend, many Facebook users preferred to “silently watch them – and perhaps even take pleasure from judging them”.
In an article for The Conversation, the researchers say that they were surprised at how many Facebook users said that they were frequently offended by what their friends posted.
This offence could be provoked by extremist or strongly held political opinions, such as racism, homophobia or partisan beliefs (such as someone who frequently posted about how much they hated the Labour Party).
However, people were also offended or annoyed by Facebook friends who overshared their daily routines or engaged in relentless self-promotion.
Seargeant and Tagg discovered that Facebook users often were not prepared to simply de-friend someone they disagreed with, thanks to complicated real-life relationships.
“For example, if a work colleague or relative offends you, there are likely to be reasons of duty or familial responsibility which mean you won’t want to de-friend them,” observe researchers.
Instead, the Facebook users in the study made “discreet changes” to how they used the site, to try and reduce the amount of content they would have to see from people they deemed offensive.
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“None of the people in the study, however, said that they’d reduced their use of Facebook because of the frequent offence they experienced from using it,” write Seargant and Tagg.
They speculate that this is because Facebook offers us the chance to be “slightly judgemental about the behaviour of your acquaintances”.
“Similar to the ‘hate-watching’ experience of viewing television programmes you don’t like because you enjoy mocking them, this can be seen as a mild form of ‘hate-reading’.
“Logging onto Facebook gives you the chance to be indignantly offended (or maybe just mildly piqued) by other people’s ill-informed views and idiosyncratic behaviour. And there’s a surprising amount of pleasure in that.”
Images: FOX / Rex Features