Is unfollowing someone ever really that deep?

Seeing that someone has cut you out of their social media life can hurt. But are we taking it too seriously?

by Douglas Greenwood
11 January 2022, 10:01am

If you spend any time at all on Twitter, you’ll have at some point experienced the feeling of being unfollowed. The sudden disappearance of the ‘Follows You’ bar when you click on a friend or acquaintance's profile. It teases you for a second, appearing as normal, before evaporating into the internet ether and catalysing many feelings. One might feign nonchalance, a ‘fuck you, then’ as you reactively unfollow back; or it might be a gut-punch thought of ‘what have I done wrong?’. Searching your own name in someone’s ‘Followed’ list on Instagram elicits much the same response; typing the first three letters of your handle before realising you are nowhere to be seen.

Either of these acts, often done out of curiosity or reassurance, are examples of extremely online masochism: a contemporary way of construing what we mean to people. But with our daily screen times sometimes ticking into 10 hours or more, paired with an increasing disconnect between our real and online personas — is being unfollowed, or unfollowing someone, ever really that big of a deal?

For some, an unfriending or unfollow is simply an act of spring cleaning. Over the years, we cultivate endless reams of people in our lives, and will naturally grow out of the relationships with many. Clarke, a copywriter from London did just this, unfollowing a few folks, including an old classmate from university who he “found annoying”. “I thought I was totally safe as we were never that close, and that we'd probably not see each other again,” he says, but when they later crossed paths at a mutual friend’s wedding, she confronted him about it. It shocked him, but he learned from it.

“It definitely stuck with me for a long time. Some people take social media so seriously, so now I mute rather than unfollow. I’m sure plenty of people have unfollowed me over the years…” Does he take issue with that? “Not in the slightest. We all have to move on, and I'm not perfect.”

In the world of celebrity, the act of unfollowing speaks volumes about relationships we, the public, don’t have direct access to, and witnessing its social media breakdown feels like being part of an A-list friendship group. Let’s take our minds back to October 2021. Jesy Nelson had just dropped her new single “Boyz”, a track widely derided by critics and marketed in the most manic of ways, i.e. an Instagram Live with collaborator Nicki Minaj during which she decided to drag the other members of her former band Little Mix. Following that live streamed, agonising conversation, the individual members of Little Mix and the band’s main account all unfollowed Jesy on social media.

It catalysed a creative meme in which everyone from pasta sauce legend Sophia Dolmio to the stomach acid neutralizing tablet Gaviscon followed suit. As a gag, it worked because the act itself, in the world of celebrity, is huge. While normies like us do it to shun annoying people from our feeds, when the famouses click that unfollow button it suggests something way harsher. It’s a last resort. The symbol of a break-up or irreconcilable beef, often one that is all the tabloid media and pop culture hungry have to go on as a look into the star’s personal life. The act seems minor, but the context — who’s doing it, and of course who’s watching — changes everything when the world knows you.

For some people, the initial thought process when they realise someone has unfollowed them is less of a grovelling “What have I done wrong?” and more of an “I wonder which tweet it was that made them unfollow!” This is the stance of Ryan, an avid Twitter user. “That's when I unfollow people normally,” he says. “If they post something properly dumb and I'm like, ‘Why am I following this moron?’” Sometimes, it’s undeniable: there is a motivation behind it. But Ryan offers an opposing point too; that internet glitches or subconscious slips of a finger can be the culprits behind a rogue unfollow.

“I'm sort of fine about [being unfollowed] because it's never someone I'm actually friends with, either IRL or the ‘online’ sense, but a while ago I noticed that someone I really like unfollowed me and it turned out I'd unfollowed him by accident so he'd reciprocated,” Ryan says. He took the taboo decision to reach out and ask why. “In hindsight, it was maybe a bit much, but at least it resolved a misunderstanding.”

The oft-repeated but nonetheless accurate truth of the matter is that we spend so much time online that it completely skews our interpretations of real life relationships. When was the last time you were out in public and felt actively rejected by someone you felt familiar with? Chances are it’s such a rare occurrence you might struggle to even recall one, but when we move online, every minutiae of our digital existence — every unfollow, dry response and glaring ‘Read’ receipt — step in to recreate that rare feeling of rejection in a form that feels documented for your own torture; its meaning unequivocal.

We are often the first ones to recognise how annoying we are on the internet, posting too much, being brazen and incendiary, revealing too much about our personal lives. And yet, we never learn that we are doing so to an audience of people we’ve known for both decades and days; those we know well, those we have only met once and some we have never, and may never, meet IRL. People who follow us are well within their right to check out when they choose; the loyalties formed by the internet can help cultivate strong real life relationships, but they can’t be the bedrock of them.

Besides, there is no greater tragedy on this earth than the existence of objectively boring people. Be grateful that you’re annoying enough for an unfollower to grow tired of you metaphorically shouting through a screen. But for the love of god, don’t actively seek out those who choose to remove you from their social media circles; that kind of self-flagellating torture is inexcusable. Move on, be good to yourself. There are plenty more important things to care about than what happens on the internet.

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