Unfollowing on Instagram

When I submitted my first draft for this story about how one’s social media is not equivalent to his or her life, one of the editors at ZULA commented, “Sounds like an older person DK how social media works for younger ppl.”

Which led me to interview younger Millennials with this question, “Can we still be friends if I unfollowed you on social media?”

Most of these social media natives (kids below 26 years old) were hesitant to give a straight up yes or no answer but expressed the unfollow button was a storm that rocked the friendship boat.

“To the younger generation, Instagram is the only form of social media they use on a regular basis. Hence, they might consider unfollowing as a big deal,” mentioned Lionel Khoo, 28, a business owner who uses Instagram for marketing purposes.

Only through investigating for this article did I realise how much social media meant to the younger generation since they grew up with it.

“If we are friends and I unfollow you, it means we are probably not really friends. To be my friend, I would love the person you are. And the person you are would be authentically you, online or offline,” a popular Instagrammer @rchlwngxx explained.

Instagram, was the curated story of who they wanted to be perceived as; a reflection of their ideal selves, their hopes, and dreams.

As such it is hard to divorce their online identities that are accepted or rejected in a friendship.

What unfollowing means

Younger people feel rejected when someone unfollows them, especially a friend.

We learn from psychology that rejection can feel as awful as physical pain. Most of the people I interviewed mentioned, “Unfollowing means they are no longer interested in my life.”

But does ‘unfollow’ = no interest in your life?

How I feel about social media sometimes. Source

Friendship is not always clear-cut

Having met friends from various contexts, even when I lived and worked in the USA and Japan, I have learnt that it’s hard to define what friendship is.

In most contexts, people bond over a common task at work or school. Perhaps, they might be drawn to a common activity such as sports or computer games, or they might just have a ‘you totally get me’ spark at first sight.

But, the foundation of these friendships does not always have strong links with the content pushed out from Instagram.

When you build a friendship, you don’t always know what pets a person has, what they had for lunch and who their significant other is; these being common content pillars of people’s Instagram accounts.

While Instagram shows a more beautiful aspect of your life, perhaps it was through a period of pain that I bonded with you, and I find it difficult to relate to your filtered smiles or your new BF who dresses better than you.

And that doesn’t mean I have no interest in what you have to say in private and not on a public platform.

Social media didn’t use to have such high stakes

I remember getting on Instagram almost seven years ago. People loved the vintage effects that could make their mundane photos look like polaroids. I posted pretty much whatever I pleased from neighbourhood cats to the coffee I was drinking that day.

Why it was called Instagram, was because you were meant to instantaneously show where you were and what you were up to.

Fast forward a few years, the rules have absolutely changed. After Facebook acquired Instagram, vintage filters like X-pro and Sienna were phased out with people preferring a more natural ‘I got up like this’ look.


The growing influencer industry also meant people were savvier about how often they posted, who they followed or unfollowed, when they posted, and the type of content they pushed out.

While it feels like we have lived on Instagram all this while, we should be aware that the social media landscape constantly shifts and so does our relationships and meanings.

Case in point: it was only a few years ago that Snapchat was the hot app. It has since been devoured by Instagram stories. Would someone’s ‘unfollow’ on Snapchat means they reject you as a friend?

“Especially now can mute the feed, even if you find your good friend’s posts annoying, you can just mute it. To unfollow it’s almost sending a message, hey, I’m not close with you anymore, I don’t wanna see your feed,” Lionel explained.

A few other people I interviewed mentioned the mute function which I literally just learnt about. *Shock face emoji*

These new functions are rolled out to pacify the unfollow = unfriend beliefs. As mentioned, such apps will continue to change, causing social media friendship rules to change. Is it fair to expect our less savvy friends to continually keep up with these unwritten rules?

While we communicate and relate with our friends through social media, we should be constantly aware that it is a platform held by profitable companies who want to maximise its commercial value.

Does understanding that social media is more of a marketplace than a friendship band helps us to take an ‘unfollow’ less seriously?

“I used to have the ‘Unfollow’ app (which helps one detect who unfollowed recently) but deleted it because it was TOXIC,” said Leah, our video producer.

Social media is just one part of our lives

While our emotions tell us that a ‘follow’ or ‘like’ is an official validation of friendship, we need to be wary of such beliefs.

There are many factors that surround friendships and relationships, and social media opens up a whole new chapter with unspoken online etiquette rules. Some, like me, have outdated guidebooks.

Let’s keep an open mind and not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that an ‘unfollow’ is a deletion of friendship—the same way we don’t assume a ‘follow’ to be a friend.

Cover Image via Rawpixel / Unsplash

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