For my generation (the crazy millennials), social media has become an integral tool for defining and understanding our relationships. We know where we stand based on how we interact with our friends on social media — what (or if) we comment, when to unfollow, when to send a friend request, etc. We depend on social media, though maybe not as much as the media makes us out to.
I noticed this dependency as I discovered that my best friend from high school and I were slowly erasing each other from our lives. Secretly and slowly, we stopped interacting with each other online, and as of recently, we’ve even un-friended and un-followed each other on multiple accounts. If someone looked at either of our various accounts right now, they would have no idea that we had known each other for eight years. They wouldn’t know about how we supported each other through depression, anxiety, abandonment, bullying and heartbreak. Somewhere along the line, we changed our minds, deleted our pasts and moved on.
It first started with Twitter. I am not an avid Twitter user. My interactions with Twitter are limited to bus stop waiting and late, sleepless nights, mostly when I feel the need to rant about insignificant things that others might agree with or find funny, like finals or costly Uber rides.
For a lot of people my age, Twitter is the premier social media platform for interacting with others. Within a minute, your 140 characters are sent out for anyone in the world to see, favorite, share or reply to. It’s extremely compelling to share every thought you have and have it affirmed by your peers. However, it’s also spawned the subtweet, or a passive-aggressive comment aimed at someone who isn’t directly tagged. Subtweets are the online version of someone talking behind your back, except you can see the words they used and how others are interacting with them. We all carry those middle-of-the-night worries that we are unlikable, just barely tolerable people, and seeing those anxieties affirmed in a setting in which hundreds of others can see it too suddenly makes you rethink every belief you had about a friendship. You second-guess a friend’s genuineness, you feel made fun of and you feel betrayed.
I saw the subtweets.
We were still on good terms.
Yet it didn’t end there. Twitter may be the platform for sharing your thoughts, but Instagram is the platform for sharing your perspective. Not to use a cliché, but a picture really is a thousand words, and Instagram has millions of pictures. Each Instagram account varies, from accounts dedicated to travel and food to accounts owned and used by celebrities. In my experience, the average millenial’s Instagram account has some selfies, pictures of friends, cool places they’ve gone to recently, maybe something they’ve drawn or achieved and yes, sometimes pictures of food. Instagram gives people a space to share how they see their lives.
With this comes the fact that most people share photos frequently, and most people follow several hundred other people, meaning you are provided with an endless stream of photos. But Instagram also has become a platform that encourages an obsession with numbers, particularly how many likes a picture received and the ratio of followers to following. Everyone wants their perspectives and their lives to be approved by close friends, family, acquaintances from high school, the girl you’re secretly jealous of and whoever else decides to approve your photos.
Because of this, I recently installed an app that tracks your Instagram followers. I had noticed that I had a lot of accounts that would follow me then unfollow me two days later, just to keep my follow and their follower number high. That annoyed me, but it was also extremely gratifying to find out who, of the people you know, would unfollow you. I was masochistically interested in finding out who thought my perspective was no longer relevant. It turned out, this group of unfollowers included my high school best friend. Months after my decision to unfollow her on Twitter, she decided to unfollow me on Instagram.
Being unfollowed on Instagram does not carry the same sting as seeing a subtweet about yourself on Twitter. Rather, an unfollow by someone that you’re not on bad terms with just brings up a lot of questions. Was it just an attempt at decluttering her feed to the people she interacts with on a daily basis? Was one of your photos of lime trees and trash cans accidentally offensive? What made her feel the need to go out of her way to unfollow me?
I unfollowed back.
I was confused.
After finding this out, I went on Facebook and looked her up. We were no longer friends. But the interesting thing is that I don’t know if I was the one to unfriend or if she was. This is surprising, because Facebook is the most personal out of the three. Facebook is a place for sharing your life and all the milestones that come with it. Facebook has told me stories of loss, of love, of accomplishment, of heartbreak, of happiness — Facebook is a better read than most novels I’ve read because it’s real. There are typos and grammatical errors. People argue and complain, and they brag, but it is the pure, unfiltered, personal narrative of humanity.
Confirming a friendship on Facebook is agreeing that both parties want to know about what is going on in the other’s life, directly. It’s not about Instagram’s numbers, or Twitter’s accessibility, but about the person, and that’s what makes unfriending someone on Facebook more severe than unfollowing someone on Instagram.
So why can’t I remember unfriending her? My memory loss suggests that the friendship really was over, long before the unfollowing began. We had stopped caring about what was going on in each other’s lives, as awful as that may sound. Keeping each other on social media was just an attempt at recognizing that we knew each other once, until we became just another account among hundreds. Our friendship had ended, but we didn’t really know that until it happened on social media.
Contact Arianna Lombard at ariannal ‘at’ stanford.edu.