Technically I’m an adult, and yet there I was — pouting and gazing cinematically out of rain-battered windows for the better part of a weekend. It was exactly like a high school breakup, only with far less Sunny Day Real Estate. Also, I hadn’t been broken up with: I’d been unfollowed on Twitter.
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. In this instance, it was someone I’d actually met, and someone I respected. After noticing this person no longer followed me, I began cycling through all five grief stages of the Kübler-Ross model. There was denial (“My phone is being weird”), anger (“What!”), bargaining (“I can change”), depression (“I wish I could unfollow myself”), and acceptance (“Remember when you used to follow me? #tbt”). On top of this weird sense of loss, though, I felt a wave of guilt for taking it so hard. Surely, if my ancestors could see me getting all worked up about something named after bird noise, they’d be furious — perhaps to the point of actively sabotaging the bloodline. They’d be wrong to feel that way, though.
Recently, a number of internet writers have advocated for unfollowing — arguing that we should be more cavalier in the act, or even that we should purge our feeds completely to start from scratch. I too have on occasion perused my feed like a layoff-crazed efficiency expert, looking to jettison any and all dead weight. It was only recently that I began to think about how powerful and clean a dismissal it is to conclude that someone else is dead weight in your online life — depressingly, often the most visible lives we have.
Even back when it was routinely dismissed as a hub for inventorying one’s breakfast, I’ve been an evangelist of Twitter. I’ve established friendships there that spilled out into the real world, and others that lived purely online but felt more real and fruitful than some offline counterparts. Professionally, Twitter played a pivotal role in my switching jobs, and as someone who now writes for a living, it helps me keep my job. It also puts many high-profile strangers tantalizingly within reach.
It looks almost cartoonishly vain on paper, sure, but lots of Twitterers actively aim to get certain people to follow them. Making good on that aspiration may be a thoroughly modern/dubious achievement, but it builds on the ages-old desire for upward social mobility. And when those same people cut you loose, it’s akin to being kicked out of an Old World cotillion.
Once in a while, when viewing a Twitter profile on your phone, it takes a moment for the words “follows you” to slide over after the person’s name. The more you value having this person in your life, no matter how negligible the role they play, the lower your stomach drops in the span of that moment. Strangers unfollow me constantly and I couldn’t care less. My follower count waxes and wanes and there’s no point being petty about it. But if I happen to see that someone I know has excommunicated me, it feels like a character judgment that transcends the medium. It’s impossible to adequately convey this to someone who isn’t on Twitter, but when those words, “follows you,” cease to appear, the breakup comparison couldn’t be more accurate. Someone no longer likes the cut of your jib. Your services are no longer required. It’s all you can do to keep from sending out a questionnaire asking where it all went wrong. Was it just one dumb thing you said, or an accumulation? How long has this been going on ? Was the person wanting to do this for months!?
These kiss-offs don’t come with “It’s not you, it’s me” delusions either; on Twitter, it’s always you — well, unless the person nuked his entire feed. There’s always a chance they unfollowed on accident, but that’s the “Niagara Falls Girlfriend” of potential excuses, and thus unlikely. The exact reason could be any number of things. Just like with a breakup, everybody thinks they want to know the absolute truth of why it happened, despite the fact that knowing would probably be at least a little bit devastating. Twitter feels like a zero-sum passive-aggressive grudge match, and you want to deliver the rebuke of an unfollow as quickly as possible, and maybe even block them too, for good measure.
Either way, some friends, peers, and heroes will leave you on Twitter just as they will in real life, and it’s something we as people who are perhaps wildly over-invested in social media will have to learn to accept. We already know deep down that it shouldn’t be that big a deal. Not one thing about the way we currently live is sustainable, after all, and it’s only a matter of time until all social media is history and we’re out in the woods again with smoke signals and a rudimentary grasp of Morse code. Since it does feel like a big deal now, though, it’s important to realize that this parting of the ways isn’t a referendum on how you’re doing everything wrong. As The Cut’s piece advocating unfollowing pointed out, it just means you’re doing everything wrong for that one person. Everyone else might think this wrongness is exactly what’s so right about you.
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