"Is it too dramatic if I unfollow?"
I asked my friend this question last week when I was trying to decide if I was being immature by unfollowing someone who wouldn't respond to my texts in a timely manner. We hadn't spoken in weeks, even though this person was updating their Instagram page like clockwork. Every day, I would see their photos pop up in my feed, but still have no reply to my text. I finally couldn't take it anymore and needed to cut myself off temporarily, and there was only one way I knew how. I pulled up the account, took a deep breath, and tapped the button.
"It's done," I texted back.
The "unfollow" button has become a burden far heavier than the option to "follow." For me, unfollowing someone that I personally know on Instagram is my way of saying "I don't want to see you anymore, but maybe we can still be friends offline." That said, there is also the spiteful unfollow which is done to intentionally bruise the person's inflated ego. You want to believe that you matter enough to them that they will notice your username missing from their followers list and react in one of two ways: 1.) Demand to know how you could do such a thing. 2.) Try to get on your level by unfollowing back. If it sounds passive-aggressive, it's because it is, but it is quite the power move to play and usually leaves the other person heated for days. Instead of trying to analyze my own behavior and drawing premature conclusions, I reached out to Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center for some professional guidance. Have I been destroying the relationships in my life with my own tapping hands?
"Social media doesn’t always cause stress any more than any other type of social contact. Social media use is a choice you are making; thus, you have complete control over what you use and how you use it," she says. "Some people feel pressure from the continual connectedness and the perceived need for instant response. Some people feel pressure from the comparison, but social comparisons work both ways."
I don't think Instagram's "unfollow" button causes as much of a permanent damage as “defriending” someone on Facebook. When I remove someone from Facebook, I am implying that I literally want nothing to do with them and do not care if they notice. It’s harsh, but why should I have anyone in my network who doesn’t deserve to be there? If we can’t get along in the real world, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re cool in the digital world?
For the most part, I keep my friend count low. I currently have 673 followers on Instagram (and follow 485), 1,595 followers on Twitter (and follow 526), and 833 friends on Facebook. I prefer to be connected to people that I actually interact with in real life, and that I would want to keep tabs on. While I do not accept every single request I receive on Facebook or LinkedIn, I invite anyone to follow me on Twitter. That said, I don't follow every account back.
Nir Eyal, a professor and behavioral psychiatrist, examines how the nature of social media makes it hard to unfollow people in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. "These companies want you to accrue a bunch of followers," he explains. "It makes it harder and harder to leave the more you use the service. It’s a double-edged sword because the more friends you have on a platform, the more difficult it is to leave or unfriend or unfollow. It's really by design that these platforms make an unfollow rather difficult. There’s always more clicks if you notice—it’s always more work to unfollow or unfriend rather than to quickly follow a friend. That’s intentional."
If your social media relationships are making you unhappy, Dr. Rutledge encourages to take the extra step and end them. "Recognize that you are in control of your social media use. Develop a sense of awareness about where you get personal value, entertainment, or enhanced social connections, and where you don’t," she says. "Just like in your offline world, you have the right to not answer, not look, leave parties, end meetings, and limit your exposure to people and events which don’t contribute to your well-being."
On Instagram, there are so many ways to track who has unfollowed you without doing it manually. Instead of scrolling through the follower section, you can download apps like Followers + that will tell you exactly who left your page for good. The stress that the "unfollow" button brings me is similar to the anxiety that some others feel about "read receipts" and "the three dots." Dr. Rutledge recommends doing a “social media audit” and spending a few days keeping track of all your social media use and emotional reactions in a journal—from there, she suggests discontinuing activities that generate negative emotions like FOMO, stress, or inferiority.
Eyal believes that once Instagram adopts the same algorithm method as Facebook, the problem might be solved because users won't see "everybody you follow, only what they think you’re most likely to respond to." Even if the user experience improves, the fact that Instagram has become a place that legitimately stresses me out on a regular basis now is a clear indication that I am in way too deep. I have spent one too many nights clutching my phone tightly while my index finger hovers over the "unfollow" button. The number of times that I have quickly pressed cancel out of fear of hurting someone else's feelings rather than my own is pathetic, but I am ready to stop this petty behavior. Unfollow with a purpose and stick it to the man, or whoever it is that fills you with rage.