I spend the vast majority of my time on social media. Like most people these days, my offline relationships are almost instantly brought onto the internet; my online relationships often transcend into the real world, too.
Perhaps that’s why when I see my follower count drop on any of the various social media accounts I pour my (admittedly curated) life onto, it stings a little (read: a lot). All the more so when one of the lost followers is someone I considered a friend. Well-publicized cases of being unfollowed on social media seem to suggest that the person who was unfollowed must have been boring, annoying or doing something wrong. A celebrity breakup results in almost immediate unfollowing from and of both parties, Selena Gomez unfollowed a bunch of her friends post-fall-out, while Zendaya and more reportedly unfollowed Chris Brown when he made controversial comments they didn’t agree with. So it stands to reason that when someone unfollows you, it stings a little. As one writer penned in the piece "Why Being Unfollowed Can Feel Like Having Your Heart Ripped Out": “In overly melodramatic terms, to be unfollowed is to be abandoned. If it’s someone you haven’t met, your meeting now has a permanent rain check. If it’s someone you have, your next encounter will officially be chaperoned by an elephant in the room.” Sarah Buglass, a psychology researcher at Nottingham Trent University says, “[An unfollow] can be seen as a form of rejection. We are increasingly reliant on social media to keep us in the loop with our offline social connections—we use direct messaging rather than phone/text, we keep track of birthdays, organize events/outings, we share thoughts, feelings and photos […] To suddenly find you have been removed from this digital loop is for many tantamount to being socially excluded.” This, she adds, has been shown to impact negatively on our emotions in terms of lack of self–worth, a decreased sense of belonging, and lowered mood.
An unfollow can reportedly even make someone question their life choices. David Brudo, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and personal development app Remente, explains: “So many of us choose to share very personal elements of our lives on social media. Receiving an unfollow can make us feel like we are not living up to expectation, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt and insecurity.” As blogger, author, and all-round social media whiz Emma Gannon wrote, “[When someone unfollowed me] I’d brainstorm privately all the probable reasons they might have gone off me [sic]. Am I too self-absorbed? Too opinionated? Too much self-promotion? Is it because I tweeted a First World Problem?” Brudo went on to liken an unfollow to shunning—a form of social punishment that has been used throughout history. Slightly extreme, perhaps, but evidently who’s-unfollowed-who is enough of an important question to have birthed countless apps and websites. Unfollowgram, for example, lets you know who's not following you back, and has over three million users. As someone with one of these apps, when a friend unfollows me, it feels very much like a sucker punch. And I almost always end up immediately unfollowing back, which is obviously a very immature way of dealing with the situation. A quick ask on my social networks found that most people feel hurt, sad to anxious and even angry, and that pretty much everyone just instantly unfollows back, too, probably thanks in large part to a bruised ego. A few people commented that it’s ridiculous this could result in any kind of negative emotion, but a 2012 study found that unfollowing close online connections can induce strong negative emotions and feelings of rejection—just like they would in the offline world.
Indeed, the point of social media is to be social. I’ve made a real-life, actual best friend on Instagram and created and maintained countless relationships—from friendships to the more professional—on social media. Some of these are even more real and fruitful than some offline counterparts; losing any of those connections would feel just as hurtful as losing a connection made in person. But as Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, puts it, “The online world stimulates the same reactions, but do not have the same meanings. We have to be willing to invest the time to figure that out and take charge of our emotions.” Indeed, the paradigms of what social media is used for are arguably changing, becoming less about friendship, and more about interests, which don’t always align. As blogger Forever Amber wrote, “My Instagram is mostly full of photos of shoes and dresses, and I’m pretty sure I have a few (mostly male) friends who aren’t all that interested in that kind of thing, so I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t want to follow me.” Perhaps what’s most hurtful is that losing touch with people happens naturally in the real world, (mostly) effortlessly and all the time, while unfollowing on social media is a deliberate act. As Dane Cobain, social media marketer and author of upcoming book “Social Paranoia” explained, “The offline equivalent of an unfollow would be someone flat out saying, ‘I don't want to hang out with you any more,' which doesn’t often happen. Instead, people usually just make excuses until you get the message.” Maybe the first step therefore, is in mentally separating our online personas from our real personas; ultimately most of us know by now that what we’re seeing on our smartphones is the tiniest percentage of a curated version of someone’s life. The judgment, therefore, if it exists, is on that persona, not on you. Maybe then we should attempt to disconnect our egos, and understand that our social media followings are not indicative of our worth, or of the importance of the roles we play in others’ lives. The definition of good content is subjective and just because you connect with someone in real life doesn’t mean your interests will align on social media. As the popular meme says: haters gonna hate. Maybe take it as a compliment?
Perhaps what’s most hurtful is that losing touch with people happens naturally in the real world, while unfollowing on social media is a deliberate act.