Understanding Why We Search For “Who Unfollowed Me?”

By now, you’ve probably seen the above video. Google’s “Year in Search 2014” released at the tail end of last year, going viral shortly thereafter, named the most engaging TV ad by Ad Age at the beginning of January. “In 2014 we searched trillions of times,” the video states with an opening title card, before launching into a montage of inspiring images and upbeat music. By the end, it’s hard to not be swept up in Google’s call to action: “Search on.” The video was accompanied by a Google pamphlet found in The New York Times’ Sunday edition entitled “A little look at a big year,” which further highlights some of the specific terms the world searched for. Within, you’ll find heartening statistics such as the fact that ‘Monkey Selfie’ was searched for three times more than ‘Kardashian Selfie,’ or that ‘What is love’ is the most asked question of 2014.
Being qualitative researchers, we here at MindSwarms couldn’t help but ask, “Why?” to Google’s record of “What” was searched in 2014. Sure, it was swell to know what happened in 2014, but the drive to understand why is what makes MindSwarms tick. Knowing we couldn’t run a mobile video survey about all of the searched for terms, we decided to focus in on “Who unfollowed me?” We wanted to learn the emotional drivers for participants who typed this into Google’s search bar: What compelled them to find out who abandoned their social media ship? Why did they care? And how were they affected after they identified the mutineers? Nineteen participants completed the one-question mobile video survey. View the highlight reel of that survey below.

Daniel from California sets the stakes up quite eloquently: “So I feel with Twitter, it’s almost an indication of your social status. So the more people that are following you, the more popular you seem to be. And kind of like a commodity, you’re more in demand. And much like a commodity, you’re a brand. Conversely, when somebody unfollows you, you’re obviously you’re upset, but you’re curious as to the reason why.”
Building the Brand of Me, social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram encourage their users to strive for followers, likes, and shares, translating each platform’s “social” experience into a litany of exchanges that distribute social capital. One respondent who preferred to remain anonymous explained how she viewed her Twitter followers, “I basically searched the phrase ‘who unfollowed me?’ and that’s because of my Twitter, and if they wasn’t following me, I didn’t want to follow them back because I’m trying to build up my following.” As our social coffers fill, and each like, share, and follower reinforces our view that our brand is so hot right now, it only makes sense that we get precious with the exact number in our social bank account. We are, in fact, all marketing an image, and like any brand, finding out why that image is no longer attractive to a ex-customer is important to the business of that brand.
This type of curiosity drove a majority of our mobile video survey’s participants. While some folks were able to remove ego from the search, many took the unfollowing personally. Danielle from New York explains, “I thought what did I do wrong? Why don’t they like me? And you start thinking about it and over analyzing it.” For respondents that found out their unfollowers were (ex) friends, the emotional impact was severe. Brandon from Georgia framed his emotional journey as such: “… first the feeling of surprise, then I guess the feeling of rejection. And just feeling just really surprised that someone would no longer want you in their life, essentially.” Hearteningly, respondents were able to rebound from their initial shock because, in the end, what’s one follower when you have several hundred or even several thousand?
Uncovering the emotional drivers behind the search “Who unfollowed me” allowed us to glimpse the impact social networks have on how we almost fanatically monitor our carefully curated online brand. After all, our profiles are little more than monuments of self built on the unstable foundation of our ego. The Kenyan author Warsan Shire puts it best: “The ego hurts you like this: you become obsessed with the one person who does not love you. Blind to the rest who do.”