Why You Were Unfollowed on Instagram

There are some things in life we’re just better off not knowing. Whether its the badly written final season of our favourite show, the textimo brothers in your crush’s messages, or that cute girl from highschool who just unfollowed you on Instagram. On the surface these minor injustices might seem insignificant, but in the moment, in the age of living in the moment, this kind of news can cut deep. Think about it, some of us choose to check a list of Instagram users who have lost interest in us. Why? Remove the context of Instagram and the notion itself seems absurd. Yet we still look.

Strategic self-deception is more beneficial to the organism than unadulterated truth.

— Zero HP Lovecraft

As much as technology enriches our lives, it also brings change, and with change comes new social interactions, absent of any kind of established etiquette. The day social media became embedded in modern life a new kind of social taboo emerged: getting unfollowed.

Many of the reasons behind what makes unfollowing so prickly comes from the history of online relationships in general. Not long ago social media invented the concept of ‘friending’ and with it came the opposite action… the ‘unfriend’. This is where ‘following’ is derived, which is essentially a one-way friendship that gives users access to an account, as opposed to ‘friending’ which grants access based on mutual consent.

Turns out this ‘friending’ method created natural barriers for content within the social media ecosystem. Developers realized this, so now instead many new platforms use the ‘follower’ method to allow content to flow more freely. More content means more screen time, which means more content and thus this loop leads to money somewhere down the line.

Once the two types of network structures are defined, the differences between the platforms that utilize them become easier to see. Instagram uses a follower method, which encourages a relationship between creators and their consumers, where creators are put in the spotlight rather than act as a member of a community like they do on Facebook. As Millennials migrated from Facebook (a friend-to-friend network) to Instagram (a creator-to-follower network) a shakeup in their online social groups was bound to happen under this new type of network.

Facebook was the first, so its structure defined social media etiquette for most Millennials, and Instagram came along with a new design that took a sledge hammer to its most sacred norm: content through mutual friendship. You could now unfollow that “friend” you no longer had an interest in, while preserving the connection that let them observe you. The act of unfollowing someone goes against the rules we’re used to, representing a violation of our shared etiquette and assumptions of online respect. This ultimately adds the social anxiety that clouds Instagram itself.

Those who have been unfollowed tend to compare the relative ease of following someone with the rather ‘go out of your way’ action of undoing it. They act as if the whole event was so unnecessary, which probably has its roots in the difficulty associated with unfriending someone on Facebook.

Since the concept of the digital friendship and following are both relatively new, we really don’t have a grasp of how to properly handle a virtual severing of ties.

The reason we unfollow in the first place generally comes down to a change in the content we want to see. The jump to online media and social networking was probably the easiest and most organic for Millennials. When Facebook took off we all adopted the platform together, which meant that meeting someone new and friending them on Facebook usually went hand in hand. As a result, Facebook social circles were a near reflection of their real life counterparts between 2009 and 2015. Its been over a decade since my middle school class got on Facebook, and our profiles have since followed us down our different paths in life.

Today, Facebook is like peering through a looking glass at people we used to know living lives we know little about. It is a combination of the old and the new, and frankly it’s boring as hell. Perhaps the abundance of these old faces is to blame for the Millennial exodus from Facebook while the Boomers remain and continue to enjoy the nostalgia inherent in the Facebook newsfeed.

Every generation has their preferred kind of content IV drip, it makes sense it would change in tandem with the social dynamics we find ourselves in.

For half a decade the Instagram ‘homepage’ (newsfeed) has been the dominant social feed for Millennials. The homepage has maintained its relevance, in part by being fundamentally different from the Facebook newsfeed. Instagram utilizes their follower network to keep users focused on a constant stream of new content from sources they find relevant.

Over time certain content loses its appeal, which generally translates to: people become less interesting. In an environment like Instagram anything that doesn’t spark a small interest stands out from the norm, and to address this we prune the edges without thinking very much. Now in the real world this would never happen, someone losing relevance generally means they aren’t in our lives anymore. As we grow the things keeping us in the lives of our friends and acquaintances naturally change. There is no imaginary connection that needs to be maintained or an awkward sendoff when we decide we are bored watching someone live their life. Before social media we never needed the mental ability to deal with the notification that somebody just stopped caring, cutting off their subscription to the curated story of our life.

This is now our reality, that’s of course if we choose to look. Even though Instagram doesn’t make it easy to see who unfollows you, there are many apps out there that can keep track of it. These apps enable and preserve our self-destructive urge to know what we’re better off not knowing.

For many of us the worst part about getting unfollowed is not that someone’s connection to you was intentionally broken, but that you still have open access to keep up with them if you so choose. This twist of the dagger is what gives the act of unfollowing a hint of disrespect. A friend of mine summed up this feeling best when he said “I’m not your fan” and that certainly strikes at the heart of what makes Instagram so decadent and pervasive.

As a creator Instagram conditions you value fans, not friends. Although Facebook is at times a popularity contest, it is much more about mutual connection than it is building a follower-base. Being real friends comes with certain expectations of respect, of mutual interest, and getting unfollowed is often seen as a violation of those tenants. Nobody really wants to be a fan of someone they once thought of as a friend, many of us have too much pride.

In the distant age before social media, friends used to be just that, friends. There was no thread connecting you to anyone else, except for the experiences you shared in real life. Social media brought that relationship online, manifested it in a database and curated your product experience with the people you surround yourself with. It was a genius idea that continues to baffle us with its ramifications.

We have become acutely aware of dying relationships that would have been nothing more than an afterthought in the time before social media, which only adds to the growing incidence of anxiety in our culture.

Unfollowing hurts because we make it into something its not. A mutual follower isn’t the same as a friendship, and not even the same as an online friendship from a previous platform. A follower is someone with an interest, and if we want to continue to use these networks in a healthy manner we need to accept that not all of our acquaintances will be interested in what we put online. Online etiquette needs to do away with the mutual follow, because it is no longer the same as a budding friendship.

We should see Instagram for what it really is: a magazine with too much power over us. Supersaturated with acquaintances posing as mini celebrities and models, where all that really matters is how many of us are watching the show.

As Millennials we need to stop siphoning self-worth from followers who have a mild interest in the way we look or the lives we portray. If someone decides to tune out, maybe we’re doing something right. Real connections can only exist within the bounds of friendship and thank god that can’t be uploaded to a database.

If that were possible, I’d rather not know.

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