Betty Platten asks: Why does being unfollowed by someone you care about hurt so much?
by Betty Platten
I’ve been thinking a lot about the very deliberate choice of unfollowing. On social media, of course. Specifically, the kaleidoscope that is Instagram.
What has to happen for someone to conclude that hitting the unfollow button is necessary? Or warranted?
Why does being unfollowed by someone you care about hurt so much?
A friend unfollowed me last week. Realising that she’d done this kickstarted a supercut of memories. I clutched at straws, wondering if it was a mistake, when I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t.
I met her ten years ago, when we were both students. After we graduated, she moved back to the US. No stranger to long distance friendships, over the years we kept up a steady stream of WhatsApp and FaceTime. She visited the UK a couple of times. Came to stay with me and my flatmates in London. We went to visit our old university town together. Laughed about how we were “definitely starting to get old.”
In 2018 I went to visit her in California. In the end, through sheer serendipity, my visit lined up with the lead-up to her wedding – an intimate, family only courthouse event. I felt so lucky, giddy to be spending time with her before such an important life moment. To meet her parents and her soon-to-be husband. To help her pick out shoes, decide on a manicure. I was there when her wedding rings were delivered, when she opened the box, the air fizzing with excitement.
Over the past year, as the pandemic took hold and kept holding on, we checked in with each other regularly. The last time we messaged was mid-April. Only a month later she unfollowed me, without saying anything at all.
I took the glossy wedding photo she sent me in the post off my pinboard. I couldn’t have it up anymore. I didn’t have the heart to throw it away. I slid it into the back of an old journal in a box on top of my wardrobe.
I am almost certain I know why she unfollowed me. I will never know for sure, because she didn’t offer any explanation. I shared a poem by a well-known and well-respected writer, about serious violence that has recently made headlines. It is a situation that I know only too well my friend and I don’t agree on, at all.
The reason I checked, and realised she had unfollowed me, is because I was almost expecting it. It threw me for a loop, but it was a loop I’d been gearing up for.
She had already unfollowed and unfriended two other university friends, in very similar circumstances, a couple of years ago. When I checked, and saw it had finally happened to me, I still felt like something had come unstuck.
There is a part of me that finds the whole thing absurd. She clicked a little button. A number on my screen decreased by one. So what?
And yet, it’s more than that, of course. It’s a very deliberate removal of anything to do with me from her screen. And it feels personal.
“My understanding of her, and of our friendship, is frayed at the edges. From her side, there was no willingness to talk. From my side, I don’t have the language to ask why.”
In the immediate aftermath, I thought it might hurt less because of the time difference and the distance. But I learned to use the world clock feature on my phone on that trip to California, the last time I saw her. The time difference with LA is embedded in my consciousness. As I began to wind down for the evening, trying to keep the Sunday blues at bay, trying to ignore the rush of grief in my throat, I knew she would be doing her Sunday morning batch cooking. Playing with her cat.
She didn’t remove me from her followers. I can see her stories. I just can’t reply any more. After a couple of days, I couldn’t take it anymore. I muted her.
I couldn’t bring myself to hit “unfollow.”
My understanding of her, and of our friendship, is frayed at the edges. From her side, there was no willingness to talk. From my side, I don’t have the language to ask why. I feel disposable. From where I am sitting, it’s like she reduced me to the digital version of myself. Shrunk me down to an Instagram story, and then rejected me.
There will always be a before and an after. Almost a decade of friendship, disrupted by a swipe and a tap that likely took far less than a minute.
I woke up early the next morning, unable to get back to sleep. Squinting in the glare of my phone screen while my partner slept beside me. Googling “friendship breakup” and “losing friends over politics.” Scrolling through the paragraphs, hungrily reading other people’s stories, being left hungrier than before for answers.
Instead of answers, I just get memories.
Taking the bus back to campus, slightly drunk, ranting to one another about crushes and the cruelty of boys. Enthusiastically sharing vegan recipes, soaked in idealism after watching documentaries. Exchanging pained sighs in the library. Making cake, lining up rows of strawberries and blueberries. Her smile, picking me up at LAX. Us washing her dogs together in her yard. Playing with makeup testers in Sephora as if we were teenagers. Her laugh as I was endlessly enchanted by the palm trees. The songs we listened to, driving around. Picking out a bracelet for her at the Abbot Kinney Festival, as a wedding present. The photo of her wrist she sent me on her wedding day, to show me I was “there” even though I couldn’t be.
I am getting married next week. I doubt I’ll be sharing photos publicly – I almost exclusively use social media for book recommendations, writing, and sharing fundraisers. Normally, I send photos to friends privately or in group chats.
It feels so strange, realising I suddenly don’t want to send her pictures from my wedding.
When I was in a bad depressive episode some years ago, she sent me a book. A very “good vibes only” book, extremely LA. All about building self-esteem and, apparently, success, through affirmations. “You can have an exceptional life,” the author promised. “This was so helpful to me,” she told me on FaceTime.
Whatever happens next, there will always be a before and an after. There will always be this weird, confusing, rupture. I’m starting to shake off some of the blunt, heavy sadness. But I don’t know if our relationship is repairable.
For now, all I can think of is that my life – in all its exceptional moments and mundane moments and everything in between – is one she has kind of opted out of. And for now, her online life is one I’ve had to mute.
Betty Platten is a writer living in London.