Image courtesy of Anchor Lee on Unsplash

7 // Follow the Leader

One of my goals for 2019 was to clean my metaphorical social media “house.” Over the years, my Facebook friends list had grown to include a lot of people I’ve only met once or twice. My Instagram feed was filled with accounts I’d stumbled across five or six years ago. And Twitter, well, it was Twitter. I wasn’t ready (and I’m still not) to throw in the towel entirely, but I wanted to regain intentional control of the social media I use. Here’s what I did.

(Note: I use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, with varying degrees of frequency, so that’s what I’m focusing on here. But the principles can easily be applied to any digital platform.) Here’s what I did.

Step One

Think of this first step as walking through your attic and tossing out empty boxes and broken toys you’d forgotten about.

I made a broad sweep of all three platforms, unfollowing based purely on gut. For me, this included any celebrity or other online personality or influencer I’d followed (we’ll come back to these later). There were also quite a few accounts dedicated to interests or hobbies I’d had in previous years, but was no longer actively interested in or engaging with.

Step Two

Picture the mad dash you make around the house when you discover your aunt is dropping by for an unexpected visit.

I went back through each platform in depth. On Facebook, I first went through all the pages I was still following and considered each one. I asked myself a few questions, but the one with the biggest payoff for me was this: do I scroll past the majority of their posts without engaging in any way? If the answer was yes and I couldn’t quickly justify this lack of action to myself, I unfollowed the page. Next, I went through my list of friends and unfriended a few people. (Be very careful here; I limited myself to a handful of folks who’d friended me after we’d met once, and with whom I’d had no other interactions on social media since. If in doubt, I let them be.) I also unfollowed all the groups I was a part of, so rather than their posts showing up on my main feed, I now had to visit the actual group page to see the posts.

On Twitter, I unfollowed without mercy, using similar reasoning. Had the tone or topic of a person’s tweets changed since I started following them? Did my blood pressure rise or did I roll my eyes when I read their tweets? If the answer to either was yes, I unfollowed. I also unfollowed some friends (past or current) whose tweets I simply didn’t engage with. Maybe they tweeted mostly about video games (a topic I don’t really care about). I might like them as a person, but  their tweets weren’t providing me any value. I felt free to be a little more liberal here, because I think people are a little less likely to get put out if you unfollow their Twitter than if you unfriend them on Facebook.

I used similar strategies on Instagram, though overall I think I unfollowed fewer people there than on either of the two other platforms. Mostly, I unfollowed accounts that were no longer very active, or accounts of former acquaintances with whom I’d had no real contact for quite some time.

Step Three

Imagine going over every surface and giving it the white glove treatment.

I took advantage of the unfollow button on Facebook and the mute feature on both Twitter and Instagram. These features allow you to remain friends with someone or to continue to follow them, but to hide their posts from your feed. (Note: this is something on all three sites that can be done without notifying the other person that you’re doing it, so no need to stress about hurting anyone’s feelings!)

On Facebook, I decided to try something drastic—and unfollowed just about everyone except my family (immediate and extended) and a few specific friends. Since one of my purposes for having Facebook is to keep up with people I may not see all the time, I was curious to know how many of the people I unfollowed I would actually miss. (We’ll come back to this in step four, too.)

I’d already been using the mute feature on Twitter for a while. I started with a small list of accounts and hashtags that nothing good ever seemed to come from (think current politicians and a handful of hashtags that always seem to get peoples’ panties in a wad). From there, I moved to muting/blocking every single account that “promoted” a tweet in my feed (I’m also on a campaign—a losing one, I admit, but there’s glory in the fight—against ads in my life, but that’s another post altogether). I update this list regularly as fresh scandals hit the news and new public figures become targets or scapegoats.

On Instagram, since by this point I was already only following folks whose posts I actually wanted to see, I went through and unfollowed a lot of individual stories.

Step Four

I picture this step as trying to arrange knick-knacks on a bookshelf. You move a few things around, step back and survey the scene, then move something over to the left half an inch. The next day, you might swap this piece for that piece.

At this point, most of the heavy lifting was done. In the case of Facebook, I now had a very minimal feed. None of my family is very active, so I can log on every few days and get caught up in a few minutes. I also realized that I missed the posts of a few other folks, so I went back to their page and started following them again.

On Twitter and Instagram, I now follow and unfollow regularly. Rather than feeling locked into scrolling past someone’s tweets or photos because I followed them six months ago, I give myself the freedom to unfollow if I’m just not feeling it anymore. This has the added benefit of making me more engaged in my feeds, rather than passively scrolling.

Closing Thoughts

I mentioned earlier that I unfollowed virtually all celebrities/public figures/influencers, etc. at the start of this endeavor. I did this because it struck me how interesting it is that we use the term “follow” to describe how we interact with these people on social media.

Regardless of which specific definition of “follow” you choose, there’s an underlying theme: to follow something is to engage with or imitate something. In the case of the children’s game, it means literally walking behind a person, in their footsteps, doing everything they do.

With this in mind, I want to be be very careful with how I chose to use my social media accounts moving forward. In the case of celebrities/public figures/influencers, I ask myself, are these people I want to imitate? Am I following them because I think I “should,” or because they set an example worth following? Using this criteria, I’ve since added a few of these people back into the mix. But sparingly. Less is more.

One last thought: I now think of my social media feeds as a fenced-in field. It’s finite in size, which means that not everyone can fit. But that’s okay. Because these are my feeds, I can choose what and who I let speak into my life.