Social Media: Users Who Aren’t Tagged Feel Excluded

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Exclusion on Instagram can become visible in different ways. People can be untag
Exclusion on Instagram can become visible in different ways. People can be untagged or cropped from the photo. (Photo: University of Basel, C. Büttner, S. Rudert)

Individuals can also experience feelings of ostracism in the digital world. Researchers from the Universities of Basel and Koblenz-Landau have studied how strongly people’s fundamental psychological needs are affected when they are not tagged on Instagram.

Humans are highly sensitive to what are known as ostracism experiences. Even short experiences of being excluded or ignored can threaten a person's fundamental needs for self-esteem and belonging, and can lower their mood. This phenomenon can be observed not only in the real world but also on social media.

In five sub-studies involving a total of 1,149 participants, researchers from the University of Basel and the University of Koblenz-Landau studied ostracism experiences in greater detail based on posted photos, such as those found on the platform Instagram. At the heart of their research was the question whether people respond as negatively as they do in real-life situations of exclusion when they are cut out of or not tagged in a posted photo.

The results show that not being tagged led to negative reactions among participants. Here, individual differences play a key role in how exclusion on Instagram is perceived: people with a high need to belong felt more threatened and responded more negatively than people with a low need to belong.

On the other hand, if a person is cut out of a photo, the participants felt even more threatened - in this case, regardless of the individual need to belong. "Our explanation for this difference is that being cut out is so painful that even individual differences, such as the need to belong, no longer matter," explains psychologist Christiane Büttner.

Evolutionary needs

Being ostracized by others can have a profound effect on the psyche. In evolutionary terms, people have a need for cooperation and to belong to a larger group - and they can also easily recognize ostracism situations. As soon as people experience ostracism, they feel that their fundamental needs for belonging, self-esteem, control and a meaningful existence are threatened.

Tagging, one of the key functions on social media, can have a profound impact on these needs. The term is used to describe the linking of another person’s profile to a photo or text. For example, posted photos may depict previous experiences or social interactions that one has shared with the tagged person.

Tagging as a source of self-esteem and belonging

Being tagged can serve as a source of self-esteem and belongingness in two ways: first, tagging among friends can highlight the closeness and importance of a relationship. Second, tagging also publicly signals the tagged person’s belongingness - in which case it indicates to others that the person is an interesting and desirable social interaction partner. Not tagging someone can be perceived as intentional or unintentional ostracism, elicit negative emotions and feelings of uncertainty, and threaten fundamental needs.

"It’s particularly dangerous for the excluded person if observers suspect that there might be a good reason why they were cut out or not tagged. If this leads others to conclude that the ostracized person is a ’bad’ interaction partner, then it potentially threatens other relationships," summarizes Christiane Büttner.

Original publication

Christiane M. Büttner, Selma C. Rudert
Why didn't you tag me’!: Social exclusion from Instagram posts hurts, especially those with a high need to belong
Computers in Human Behavior (2022), doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2021.107062