Knowing When to Click ‘Unfollow’ on Social Media


Illustration by Julia Yellow

Should I unfollow you because you responded to my Facebook post the day after the 2016 presidential election? I was devastated and hadn’t slept the night before. I posted about that, but also about my failure to pay attention to things I should have been noticing. I clearly admitted it was on me to have made such catastrophic assumptions, but you poured salt in the wound and told me I was elitist.

I remember that morning so vividly, the shard of glass piercing my soul when I came home and saw your nasty response. I had been at my daughter’s first grade class volunteering. I was signing in at the school office, and when students began leading the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom, I started sobbing. I didn’t even hide it. I just took my tears down the hallway to help 6-year-olds cut out leaves from yellow, orange, and red construction paper. Or maybe it was turkey feathers. It was something fall-like, because November still means fall, even when you’re crushed and afraid.

Your response was full of misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and clichés, and I absolutely judged you as not as smart as me. I felt bad to do that, but I was reeling and you were gloating. And I don’t much like you anyway. Oh seriously, who am I kidding? I’ve already unfollowed you.

Should I unfollow you, because you started your post claiming that you didn’t like to shame other parents, and then you unleashed a wave of parent shame? I believe you actually used the phrase “Shame on those parents.” I’ve been paying close attention to parent shame lately, because it’s destructive. Did you know that shame actually served an evolutionary purpose? I learned this fact while researching the book I’m writing on honesty. Shame was kind of a “fail-safe” mechanism to encourage us to be good cooperators with each other, back when we were hunting and gathering. Shame is still hardwired in to keep us from being assholes. It’s weird that it doesn’t work better.

You posted because you were mad about the viral Covington Catholic video. I was mad, too. Except you live 1,000 miles in some direction I can’t remember (northeast? southwest?) and don’t know anything about Northern Kentucky or the diverse group of parents you were shaming, one of whom happens to be someone I deeply love.

Has mom-on-mom condemnation always been with us? I think about our ancestors, making a go of it on the African savannah 2 million years ago. Surely, one mother must have given another the evil eye when she put her baby down in grasses that weren’t tall enough to hide in. Her Facebook post might read, “I’m not one for parent shame, but how could you not have seen that lion lurking in the grass? Some people should still just be apes. Evolution has really gone too far this time!”

Back to my Facebook mother shamer in 2019: I don’t know what to do with you. Especially because I met you once and liked you immediately. You’re quirky and smart and had fantastic shoes. I don’t want to unfollow you. I might just snooze you for 30 days. That’s a brilliant Facebook setting.

Should I unfollow you because you post so much, and I’m not sure who you are? We’re colleagues in a kind of way and probably met at a writer’s conference several years back, though I can’t place a specific conversation with you. The fact that we both like words isn’t enough. You seem genuine, but we have no common interests, and all I do is scroll right on past your frequent updates involving large groups of people I’ve never met.

It’s not like you’ll get a notification that I’ve unfollowed you, right? Unless Facebook is lying when it says people aren’t notified when someone unfollows them. Facebook telling a lie wouldn’t be, you know, unheard of. Unfollowing you probably makes me a bad person. It’s a good thing I know so much about shame.

Should I unfollow you because you’re my kid and maybe you need your own digital life? Except if I don’t follow you on Instagram, how can I keep track of what you’re doing? Of course, on the iPad, I scan through your direct messages once you’re in bed and delete all the bad comments from your posts. (Why are other kids such jerks?) You’re a phoneless tween and haven’t earned digital privacy yet. But it’s not just about keeping tabs on you—I genuinely love to see the videos you edit and post. You see the world in a way I don’t, and I predict that someday you’re going to be that person who comes up with a novel solution to some huge world problem.

Should I make you unfollow inappropriate people? You follow Donald Trump, for instance, and I really don’t understand why. And then there are all those kids—boys your age—who use racial slurs. I can’t decide if no adult is monitoring them, or if they’re repeating what they hear their parents say. I want to tell you to avoid them and block them. Then I saw in a direct message you sent to one of these kids you told him to stop talking that way, that it was offensive and bad and mean. I know you’re going to get your ass kicked for calling people out. But you’re going to get your ass kicked anyway. I’d rather it be for something that matters.

Should I unfollow you because Mailchimp sent me a report that included your name in the unsubscribe list for my blog? I usually don’t open these reports, but I happened to that day. It was weird that you picked that post to unsubscribe on, because it wasn’t even one where I said something political or used the word fuck. It was just a post talking about something ordinary, like the beach. Not that the beach is ordinary. The beach is a glorious place, and when I sit low in beach chairs with my husband and we watch our kids run into the water laughing, I feel joy all the way out to my fingernails. Not that I said that exact thing in the blog post you picked to use as your opt-out. But it was something slice-of-life like that. Maybe you said, “I’m out, lady. No more damn slices.” That’s fair. Come to think of it, do I even follow you anyway?

Should I unfollow you because you consistently say things like “White women can’t be trusted?” I get defensive in my head, because I feel like I can be trusted. And then you post a story from history—today, it was an image of a black woman being poked and prodded by white male doctors doing “experiments” on her in the 19th century to learn about the female body—and it silences me appropriately. I know that white women were extremely active in the anti-slavery movement, but it was all tinged with racism and white saviorism. I want to unfollow you because I want you to be wrong and it all to be in the past and me to not be part of the problem. But you’re not, and it’s not, and I am. So I will listen, learn, and keep following you.

Should I unfollow you, because, just as I was coming to the realization that maybe I should, you blocked me? It was an interesting choice to block me, and it means something, though I’m not entirely sure what. I thought I should be this person who followed you, because it showed that I was evolved, grown up, and demonstrably not a teenager, but rather a confident, middle-aged female person. The whole situation was probably one big landmine. Instead of waiting for it to blow, you took matters into your own hands. It stung and felt immature, but also kind of freeing. So thanks, I guess.

Should I unfollow you because you represent an older version of me? There is nothing wrong or offensive about you at all. I just don’t know you anymore, and you definitely don’t know me, and sometimes all the un-knowing of each other isn’t something I want to hold on a tiny screen in my hand. Sometimes I don’t want to hold any of it in my hand. I want to look out and up, not down.

Instead of tapping a screen with my index finger, I want to glide my hand along a patch of lavender and rub it between my fingers, because that’s when it releases its aroma. You don’t get that aroma from a direct message. You don’t get it from a follow, and it doesn’t cease to exist when you unfollow. Lavender actually smells like its color. Isn’t that wondrous? In fact, I don’t even know what I’m still doing inside holding this strange circuit board full of lists of people I may or may not like, when instead I could be outside breathing in lavender.

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