Q: I’m wondering how and when it is okay to unfollow and unfriend people on Twitter and Facebook. When is it OK? I have a lot of religious relatives and friends. I have a lot of queer friends who tweet things that I find really offensive, like links to a lot of garbage. And what do you do if someone notices you unfollowed/friended them, and they ask you about it?
What an excellent question, Nadia! I’m going to call you Nadia. As someone who spends 90% of her life on the internet and is now more machine than woman, I can testify that the people whose thoughts and ideas you allow into your online space make a big difference in your overall wellbeing. Here are my thoughts on how to approach it when someone you’re connected to on social media is making you miserable to have to see.
If you’re not close,it’s almost definitely fine to just unfriend/unfollow them
If they’re someone you aren’t actually friends with/don’t see or talk to regularly, just do it, don’t pass GO, don’t collect $200. This includes: people you knew from childhood/adolescence but haven’t talked to in years, friends of friends, former roommates, coworkers from past jobs, coworkers at current jobs you don’t know very well, your friend’s ex, internet acquaintances you’ve interacted with very minorly on social media, etc. It’s very likely that these people won’t even notice you’ve unfollowed them, and if they do, it really won’t be that big a deal. They might spend a few minutes wondering about it, but will probably move on with their lives pretty quickly. The level of distress it might cause them to be unfollowed likely pales in comparison to the distress it’s causing you to have to see their theories about how vaccines are a reptilian plot. Still feel unsure about it, or you’re close enough with this person that you feel it’s not so cut and dried? Well, ok, we can talk about that.
Muting and/or hiding them
If for whatever reason you don’t want to unfriend/unfollow, because Uncle Earl bought you your first Hot Wheels car and you feel bad unfriending him even though he now believes that Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, there are some other options you can explore.
If the person in question is on Twitter, you can choose to mute them instead of unfollowing them. You should be able to do this from any Twitter platform you use, as well as most third-party ones — I know that Tweetdeck lets me. There’s a full rundown of how to do this directly from Twitter support. The important takeaways are that people can’t tell when you’ve muted them, and you can still get mentions and direct messages from muted users if you follow them, so if an otherwise noxious person tweets at you to tell you they liked your hair today, you’ll still see it and it won’t give away the fact that they’re muted.
As for Facebook, you can try a few things. Facebook’s recommended solution for this is that you “unfollow” the person — if you go to the person in question’s profile, you should see a button near the top of their profile that says “following.” You can click this and it will change to “follow,” which means you are now no longer “following” this person. Allegedly this makes their posts disappear from your newsfeed. Some of the comments left for Facebook support suggest that this is not in fact the case, and ‘unfollowing’ someone is not an effective solution. There’s one more thing you can try: if you go to your own profile and your own list of friends, search for this person’s name within your friend list. There should be a drop-down button next to it that says “Friends,” and if you click on this, you can set them as an “acquaintance.” In theory this makes Facebook’s algorithm believe that you don’t know this person well and so it won’t be useful for them to show you their stuff. Ultimately, however, Facebook’s complex network of algorithms are like the fucking Enigma code, so I can’t guarantee that any of these things will work. I tested them both on somebody I went to high school with and whose recent engagement I’m not super interested in, although I wish them well, so we’ll see how that goes.
You didn’t mention Tumblr at all, but if you’re a Tumblr user who’s also looking for ways to not see people’s posts without actually unfollowing them, xkit has got you covered all day and all night. You can mute users or block individual posts, so they won’t show up on your dashboard again no matter how many times they’re being reblogged. You can also blacklist individual words/tags, so if someone’s tumblr is 80% rad but they can’t shut up about this one topic that really bothers you, you may be able to avoid seeing those.
Going for the gold with unfollowing/unfriending
So these are your options. Sometimes, though, actually removing that person from your online experience (at least as much as possible) is what you’ve gotta do. To answer your original question: when is it okay? Ultimately, you kind of have to decide for yourself, but I can give you a suggestion. In an ideal world, the internet should be fun and edifying, something that makes your life better. Being online isn’t your job (unless it is? In which case, okay, but to the extent that we’re talking about personal interactions and personal time on social networks), and it shouldn’t be about obligation. We have to put up with things and people we’d rather avoid in almost every other part of our life; the internet, for all its faults, is one of the only places where you can just press a button and take a break from them. This is a long way of saying that if you’re finding that you’re feeling weird or gross or bad in an online space that you’re meant to be able to curate according to your preferences, it’s okay to unfollow them. Seriously! You can just do it. You’re under no obligation here; there isn’t a rule that you need to make your own totally voluntary recreational experience worse for the sake of (what you imagine about) someone’s feelings. This doesn’t mean that I think you should unfollow and/or avoid everyone who has a different set of opinions than you, or whose opinions occasionally make you uncomfortable — hearing from people who have ideas different than mine and/or who make me uncomfortable (at least a bit, initially) has been one of the best things the internet has done for me, and made me much smarter and (hopefully) better. But there’s a big difference between seeing a post, feeling a twinge of reactionary discomfort, and then chewing on it and learning from it — for me, I know I need to unfollow or mute someone when their posts make me feel a strong, decisive wash of anger and hurt and frustration, when it makes me spend the rest of my day walk around fuming and explaining to them over and over in my head why they’re wrong. That kind of discomfort isn’t helping you grow; it’s taking precious time and energy away from you that you could be using to make your own and others’ lives better.
Ok, but what do I do if they ask about it?
First of all, if somebody (especially someone you’re not close with) actually follows up to ask about this, I feel like that confirms your decision to unfollow them because that’s quite a move, like how much time do you spend thinking about this? Maybe just take it in stride and move on, no need to make a thing out of it. But if you do find yourself in that situation, you have basically two choices: lie about it or tell the truth.
If you go with the former — and I give you full permission to, you’re not trying to get canonized, whatever — the default lie here is “just cleaning up my feed because it’s gotten overwhelming for me/doesn’t make sense for the way I use [social media]!”. When I was graduating high school and Facebook was just a baby dumpling of a social network, I tried friending fellow graduate Ben H, and he rejected it and sent me a message saying “Nothing personal, I just only plan to be Facebook friends with people from my college.” Nadia, has anyone actually ever only used Facebook to interact with their college classmates? No. But I recovered just fine, and so will anyone else that you do this to. It’s also basically impossible to argue with/fact-check, so the issue will probably lose steam.
The other option is to be honest. What this entails will vary wildly based on who this person is and why you unfollowed them — obviously telling your ex that you unfollowed her because you don’t ever want to see her new girlfriend’s face is different than telling your aunt that you unfollowed her because she’s outrageously racist. If you choose this approach, the important thing here is to stick to your guns and not allow yourself to be drawn into a debate. What’s at stake here is your own experience of your own online space; try to be firm in talking about that, not the other person’s character or beliefs. Pick a simple and direct way to say this — “I don’t really like seeing [thing], and you post a lot of [thing].” No matter what else they say, all you need to do is repeat variations on that phrase. It’s possible that this person will try to pull you into a discussion about why you’re wrong to not like [thing], needle you to explain and defend your dislike of [thing], ask why you think they’re a terrible person for thinking [thing], or explain why it’s really crucial that they post about [thing], but honestly none of that is your problem. You can just sort of nod and repeat “Yes, I can see that you feel strongly about [thing], but I’d still rather not read about [thing], so I’m not following you right now because you post a lot of [thing].”(This can be a useful trick for lots of kinds of conflict, it’s good to keep in your back pocket.) This isn’t a super pleasant discussion to have, I admit, but if you stay on script there’s really only so long it can last before the other person gives up and wanders off to write something on the internet that you now won’t have to read.
Congrats! You did it. Now you can sit on social media all day, hopefully having a significantly more pleasant experience.