You Need Help: When Is It Okay to Unfollow Someone on Social Media?

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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?


A:

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.

i cannot read any more of your opinions about teen wolf fanfic i just cannot (image via shutterstock)

i cannot read any more of your opinions about teen wolf fanfic i just cannot (image via shutterstock)

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.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1094 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Rachel, because it’s definitely something I consider on a regular basis. I totally agree that there are no rules, and you should just go ahead and unfriend anyone who makes your online life unpleasant.

    I do have a fear though that if I unfriend everyone who’s intolerant or offensive views I don’t want to see, eventually I’ll end up with a newsfeed and friends list full of just people who agree with me on everything, and it’ll be like a giant echo chamber, like the ideological opposite of people who watch nothing but Fox News.

    • This is such an excellent point! It’s such an excellent point that I updated the post to talk about it more, because you made me realize how important it is to figure out the good kind of consuming-things-even-though-I-disagree-with-them and the really terrible kind that just kills your brain cells, probably. Thank you Allison!

      • Both valid approaches. I don’t actually log on to Facebook more than like, bimonthly, so I don’t see a whole lot of people posting the appallingly racist/homophobic/conservative stuff. If I’m on social media I’m mostly on tumblr, and the stuff that bothers me there is social justice people being assholes to the uninitiated/everyone who disagrees with them. Basically: yelling and lack of nuance.

        “Someone is wrong on the internet” is a pretty obnoxious raison d’être.

    • Not sure if this would help, but is there one or two of these people who would engage with you in conversation/good argument/discussion? When I left college I dumped a lot of the people who only spouted hate and made me angry, but kept the three republicans who actually backed up their views. I dont always like what they have to say, but it helps me to have a window into what the other side is thinking.

  2. Fully support the ‘go for it’ route – I clean up my social media every so often – particularly around life events – going to uni – leaving uni etc etc – often resulting in the number of ‘friends’ I have dropping like a brick – never had any messages about it. Also, if there is a specific post on fb you don’t like there is a little down arrow at the top right of each post that lets you block that post or unfollow the person – which can be useful as you don’t have to remember which ‘friends’ were saying terrible, unfriendable things. Unfollow is a great remedy for annoying family members – you are still friends but miss all the drama – and if they ever ask why you didn’t respond to some post of theirs there is always the standard “I didn’t see it” response.

  3. I remember I once unfollowed a friend on tumblr (back when I used it) because her online presence was super hyperbolic and overwhelming/incessant and within TEN MINUTES she had texted me asking why I unfollowed her. I asked her how she knew I did that so quickly and she told me she had installed a script that alerts her when someone unfollows her on tumblr. I followed her back because I felt weird about being called out on it :/ And so immediately too! This post would’ve been helpful back then.

  4. I unfriended a guy from high school for saying something like: “I can’t breathe” Good, more air for the rest of us.

    But my Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies teacher saw a post on Facebook about why we shouldn’t unfriend people who are saying things like that, that we should take the time to talk to them and explain GWSS things to them instead. It just feels very lose/lose.

  5. Unfollowing my ex on Facebook worked for me at least. Sometimes I still see her name when she likes something, but luckily she’s not a very active Facebook user. Phew.

    Also, I have a friend, let’s call her Anna, who hasn’t added me back on Instagram, probably because I’m still friends with her ex and post photos of said ex and she probably doesn’t want to see them. I was planning to ask her about it point blank because it’s awkward. I’m still following Anna and liked one of her photos today without thinking, and now I’m like “Shit, this is making it way more awkward.” So I guess I should stop liking her photos until I have a chance to talk to her face-to-face about why she hasn’t followed me back. And the whole situation is just so, so stupid and I regret that I’ve spent any time thinking about it at all because it’s freaking INSTAGRAM for god’s sake.

  6. I had to unfollow and then block someone recently on fb. It had been a long time coming and I couldn’t handle their posts anymore. I felt really bad and guilty about it, but it was better than exploding and ranting at them for days like a maniac.

    TL; DR: if you’re seriously considering unfollowing/blocking someone, they are probably already not helping your mental health. Test it out and be happy! You can always re-add them later.

  7. I read something one time about only keeping about 100-150 people max on Facebook, and have kinda lived by that rule since. I’ve been known to unfriend family members first, because, hello, they’re family and can easily be added back if needed. I went 2 years without my sister on Facebook because a) Instagram and b) tired of her crazy political re-posts without fact checking. I’ve sorta become the unfriending bitch of the group, to the point when I meet someone new my husband tells them (out of my earshot) “hey, so, if you add her on facebook don’t be offended if in two weeks or two months she unfriends you. It’s seriously nothing personal, and she’ll add you back just as easily, she just cleans up her feed every now and then.”

  8. It’s also possible to add people to your “restricted” list on Facebook! Basically, Facebook will show that you’re still friends if the person checks, but they will only be able to see your public profile information. In my experience, this also means the person doesn’t show up on your feed! Here’s the topic about it.

  9. This is a good question! I’ve been off Facebook entirely for 2 years now because it was destroying my brain. When I go back (for Tinder…ughhhhh), I’m going to weed out a lot of people. I feel empowered to whittle down the list from a few hundred to 100! My life is better not knowing about what my trig class from high school is doing, and they all seem to be surviving without knowing about me.
    If people are important to me, I try to keep them on social media, even if we disagree politically. But whereas I’m comfortable talking to my uncle about his views on immigration, I’m less comfortable telling a coworker that her pictures of herself as a child are really unattractive and she should stop cluttering my feed with them.
    I am very protective of my twitter. It’s my space to be uncensored and super-weird and probably really annoying. I tell people right away that that they cannot follow me on twitter. Ex-gf: “So you’re going to meet my parents in a few months, but it will be years before I can see your twitter, right?” Having social media boundaries makes me feel very powerful!!!

    • I feel the Twitter freedom, it’s the place I don’t tell people from work, friends or anyone I see regularly about. I have maybe 5 people following me who I knew IRL before I went on Twitter, including my gf. I’m not super weird, I’m just more honest about my feelings, my nerdiness, my gayness, my dayjob and college.

  10. I recently unfollowed some folks on FB who were acquaintances, (my friends sister who I dislike but fear un-friending would have ramifications and a couple of people whose constant drama was too much) because it constantly showed me their stuff and never my own girlfriends hilarious posts. They’ve not shown up and now I am seeing things my gf posts so I guess it worked. They don’t seem to have noticed that I unfollowed either.
    The FB algorithms seem decidedly roulette-y wrt who they think I want to see, I’d love to know how they’ve drawn these conclusions.

  11. I unfriend people all the time, I don’t need people from my home town to know where I am and what I’m doing and no-one ever mentioned anything about it. I have however, been part of a very awkward conversation when a friend of a friend of mine came up to us to ask why he had unfriended her on Facebook. He just said “I’m sorry, I cleaned up my Facebook and I don’t really speak to you much, so deleted you. But great to see you again, if you want to have lunch sometime or come over so we can catch up, let me know and maybe we can be Facebook friends again”. It thought that was a really great and honest response.

  12. Easy, if lengthy way to clean up your friends list: go through the birthdays every day. If you want to wish that person happy birthday, do so and move on. If you don’t, delete them.

  13. I have NO ISSUE of un-friending someone from my social media. I also realized that by only having 100-150 people on FB, I reduce the headaches significantly. The only person that annoys me sometimes is my cousin but she is a hot ass mess and my sister handles her when she gets out of line.

    In my real life I deal with a lot of bullshit so I need my echo chambers and safe spaces online and a lot of those spaces come from the wonderful humans of Autostraddle.

  14. I legit had a girl that I only saw TWO TIMES previously and who BARELY talked to me beforehand run up to me when I saw her at a party and threw her arms around me like we were old friends. Then, when I was getting ready to leave, she got all faux-sweet confrontational and was like “hey soooo did I upset you? I thought we were friends ob Facebook…are you sure I didn’t make you mad?” this was a THIRTY year old woman. Come on!!! Seriously? And she asked me in front of *everyone*. So friggin’ awkward.

  15. I do unfriend/unfollow, but I was late to the FB party in the first place, and I think this might lead to me feeling less pressure/guilt about it (it’s just not always been part of my life, so I don’t think about it too much). I also rarely visit.

    I don’t automatically hide people who I just plain disagree with– if they can make a coherent, sensible argument about whatever issue it is. That usually means it’s some political point that we don’t see eye-to-eye on. If what they’re saying is just plain not sensible, not fact-based, etc., then I will take action. If it’s blatantly offensive, then it’s gone. If it’s a trigger of some sort (especially a recurring one), also gone.

    I keep a pared-down friend list of people I really do want to know what’s going on with. I also have a “rule of three”– if they’re my “friend,” I need to be able to name, off the top of my head, three things they really care about, and not just things like kids or pets.

  16. I unfollow with a heavy hand. Not just people whose views make me cringe or rage, but also people who humblebrag, post all the time about how much the adore their significant other(s), or complain and generally behave like a bummer. The way I see it, I have to maintain Facebook to keep up with certain groups (even some work-related stuff) that don’t really get the word out about events in other ways. So I’m trying to minimize the fucks I give. At the first sign of discomfort I unfollow. No fucks 2k15.

  17. I so need to clean up my Facebook… One of the reasons I never go on it is because I’m friends with half my school and I really don’t need to see all the heterosexual drama. I’m too awkward to turn down a friend request from someone I’ve talked to, though, even if I don’t actually know or like them.

  18. It takes a whole lot for me to unfollow people. Because social media is, well, my job, to an extent, I can’t really separate that from real life because it is real life for me. I know some people on the interwebs from my virtual workplace better than I do some people I see every day. Seriously.

    However, social media has let me see who some people are- their true colors, so to speak. A friend of mine- now ex-friend- who was the only out student in my high school besides me has now been unfriended because his posts on social media revealed him to be a racist and a misogynist (it also didn’t help that he is a self-absorbed 33-year-old mama’s boy who was constantly whining and never grew up). Anyway, after he revealed that he enjoyed Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes, and thought that he, a white man, should be able to laugh at blackface and minstrel shows, I immediately cut him out of my life. I even put him in my Dead2ME graveyard on my Android, because he is, in fact, dead to me. I don’t need people like that in my life, and, thanks to Facebook, I now know who and what he is, and I am glad of it.

    TL;DR- don’t unfriend hastily, but if someone turns out to be douchey an is making your online experience stressful, ax them and move on. Also, you owe no one any explanations. You’re not obligated to be friends with anyone you don’t want to be friends with.

  19. Unfollowing has been an effective solution for me – when I stopped seeing someone and we still wanted to be friends, I unfollowed them and a few people I met through them. It’s like they don’t exist on Facebook unless you specifically go to find them.

  20. I have a rule for “friends” on fb: if we passed each other in the street and I wouldn’t say hello and/or would actively avoid you, we can’t be friends. Recently unfriended friend’s bf because after I got to know him a bit more, I found his personality in general to just be awful. In short, he’s cut her off from her friends, and she’s not allowed to do anything outside of work unless he comes too. She’s so wrapped up in him and constantly posts crap about him that I just unfollowed her. I’m wondering if I’ll unfriend her in the future since the actual friendship is deteriorating. Sorry for the ranting, it’s been on the edge of my mind a bit.

    • this happened to me a few years ago (except neither my friend nor her boyfriend (now husband!) were on facebook/are active on facebook) I ended up not speaking to my friend for around 6 months. At the time I was entering my own relationship with it’s own set of issues that directly mirrored hers, which… is wild! I had a gf that was so controlling of me, I stopped talking to all of my friends, including roommates. Her control of me extended to my activities, who I was allowed to be friends with, what I was allowed to wear… it was pretty awful, for everyone involved. And when that ended I was so glad, and so lucky, that my friends welcomed me back to their lives. So much so that even though my friend married her boyfriend, who I still don’t love, because his political and, you know, general views about life are so radically different from my own– I still wanted to be present in her life, and for her to be present in mine. I just choose not to have deep conversations around or about him, and our friendship functions better this way.

      I dunno, just a thought, that when someone is in an abusive relationship, emotionally or physically, having your friends walk out on you can either have a SNAP OUT OF IT effect, like OMG what is happening to me? but it can also feel like you have no one to help you get out. I was lucky that my friends stepped aside, but didn’t run away.

  21. My personal policy is to unfriend people who have hurt me and/or I don’t plan to ever see again. I don’t have room in my life for toxic people, negative people, or prejudice, and I feel fully entitled to maintain whatever boundaries I need to be healthy. I also have a policy of unfriending old acquaintances whom I don’t ever plan to interact with (online or IRL). In that case, it’s really nothing personal, I just don’t care to know details about their lives or share details about mine. I think for me, it just feels really phony and superficial to keep Facebook “friends” who aren’t really friends. I do keep acquaintances who’ve been friendly and with whom I enjoy an online friendship.

    Also, I have a rule about never, ever Facebook friending anyone from work. I like my work and private lives very separate.

  22. I get unfriended A LOT by racist, xenophobic, sexist, religious zealot etcétera “friends” on FB in particular (I used to do twitter but I got so overwhelmed with it I deleted everyone by simply never logging in again, same with tumblr) and the ONLY reason I noticed it is because I don’t feel bombarded by teyr racist, xenophobic, sexist, extreme religious BS anymore and my internet space is a much happier, welcoming, you do you space. I LOVE that they did it for me, because I’m lazy. But there have been a handful of times (particularly re: an ex) where I had to just do it. Go to their profile and click unfollow/unfriend. It’s like vomiting… it kind of sucks to do it but you feel SO much better afterwards.

  23. I make mass unfollows on Instagram all the time and I didn’t notice any negative consequences. I unfollow people who unfollow me or don’t follow me back. I use fast-unfollow.com and think it’s the fastest and lowest cost way. I tried Instagress but it was too expensive and too slow, only 500 unfollows per day. In contrast to it fast-unfollow.com can provide up to 5000 unfollows daily, in addition, I got first 1000 for free.

  24. No matter what is the reason to unfollow smb. You ought to do it of you want it. There is nothing complicated about it. By the by, it’s coming into fashion to use different multifunctional 3d party apps, e.g. Zengram, Schedugram, etc. For example, Zengram is the best way to get new real followers. There is more than one way to skin a cat, but using of these apps are most effective.

  25. Blocking, unfollowing, restricting someone is on you no matter if you have reason or not i think.

    BUT:

    Ask yourself, why you want tell reason for blocking?

    And question of questions is: Why you care if user recognize it?

    Doing this without no words is something telling about you and who you are. No matter what blocked user wrote post or something what is your reason to do it. Even bulling can be exchanged for provocating. Are you acting linke this in real life? I think no.

    what you mean about this:
    “judging someone without giving chance to defend himself or accept the guilt”

    If nothing more, it’s not fair.

    In real this kind of behavior is mark of weaker, narcistic personalities,… and policemans 😉

    People with PTSS are very often acting like this to friend who care about them, because they care

    Telling reason is good for you not them.
    Keep in mind that people are people, everyone is unique and no one is perfect, but if they want they can change. But change needs a reason it’s not easy.

    And remember, telling someone something to eyes and wrote that words is huuuuuge difference. One grimace on your face telling more then words you say

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