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My #Unfollow Experiment.

April 9, 2015

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I love social media. Everyone who has been reading this blog for fourteen seconds knows that. I am in love with all things Instagram-Pinterest-Twitter-take-another-picture-with-your-iPhone. Social media and the Internet have given us so many wonderful, enjoyable ways to share and be inspired by beautiful photos and words.

But one day recently, I realized that it was time to have a DTR with my social media. I felt like I was drowning. Feeds that I once enjoyed and where I once found inspiration felt like a black hole. I found myself scanning my blog feed frantically, waiting for something useful to leap off the page in the midst of tons of word clutter.

Instagram, my best bud, had become this sticky mixing pot of inspiration and family and friends and acquaintances and friends of friends that I met briefly years ago and spouses of people who used to be friends but whom I hadn’t talked to in forever and friends of friends that I met at parties that I can’t now place who I really clicked with but then we never actually ended up meeting up for coffee and so I don’t understand why I now see every meal that they eat.

My social media feed had turned into that bad party where you pretend to like someone you are standing next to while you frantically scan the room for your actual friend who never turns up.

And then I read about one woman’s adventure in unfollowing. And one creative’s radical approach to Instagram. And this plea for an Internet Holy Year of Mercy. I knew I wasn’t alone. There was a way for me to take back my social media consumption and my sanity. The answer was within my reach. I just needed to act.

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Here were the biggest, most glaring problems with my social media streams.

1. I was following people in the wrong channels for the wrong reasons. I would follow people because I felt obliged to follow them back if they followed me, even if their feed provided me with no inspiration or encouragement or anything good whatsoever. I would follow people for the same reason people stay in bad relationships. Some vague sense that maybe we were friends or could be friends or should be friends kept them in my streams, even though actual relationship ground was, like, nada.

(I’m not saying you have to be actual friends with people to follow them. But one shouldn’t follow Instagram accounts under false pretenses. Like in any good relationship, you should know where you stand and why you stand there.)

2. I was following the same people in multiple places, so a great deal of my content was duplicative. (Thanks, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, for pointing this out.) I would see the same pictures on Facebook and Instagram and like them both places (often, the second time, again simply out of some cloudy feeling of obligation.)

3. I was following friends, inspiration, and acquaintances on channels where they had accounts but weren’t active. So if I had a friend who was on Instagram and Twitter, even if she only used Instagram, I would still follow her both places. This is a totally futile endeavor. Multiple this by 200 and the futility factor is sky-high.

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Why do we do this to ourselves? Part of it, for me, was FOMO. I was terrified to miss out (what exactly I might be missing out on is unclear). I was afraid to miss a great article, an important update, a cool shot.

But isn’t that part of the whole grand scheme that keeps us hooked to our screens? We are utterly terrified that somewhere, something really great is going to happen and WE ARE GOING TO MISS IT. OR BE LEFT OUT. OR SOMETHING.

This is irrational fear. This is ridiculous. And this is making us all a little crazy. First of all, I cannot follow every single thing that every other person in the world does. Even if it’s all awesome. There aren’t enough seconds. So even attempting such a thing is totally ridiculous. And let’s admit it: most of what is on Instagram and Twitter is not awesome at all. A good chunk of it is entirely meaningless to the majority of the population.

The other part of the equation of for me was a fuzzy sense of polite obligation to follow and “like”. The Internet’s moral codes of politeness are still being honed, but following is not an obligation. It is a choice to consume or not consume.

I found myself following bloggers that I love and then routinely becoming irritated during the day as they Instagrammed their perfect (through the lens of Instagram) life: “Beautiful breakfast!” “Followed by cute baby napping!” “Followed by new haircut!” and then “Date night in new gorgeous outfit with perfect makeup!”

I was suddenly less content with my breakfast eaten with one hand while playing with Miles who was not napping because he believes that a nap strike every other day is perfectly normal, in a ponytail and yoga pants because I didn’t have time to shower or answer my work emails, much less get a haircut. This times 15 blogs times every day was a lot of irritation.

This is not a criticism of aforementioned bloggers or their Instagram accounts. I still follow the same bloggers and I still love their content. But if I am routinely becoming discouraged instead of encouraged and annoyed instead of inspired, I need to disconnect from the pieces that are dragging me down and focus on things that fill me with joy. In this case, it was blogger overload. They may take pictures for a living, but I don’t have to consume every single image they produce.

This is part of intentional living, of choosing what comes in and what gets my time and what holds my attention and where I spend my energy. I realized that I just needed to practice what I know about being intentional in a (heretofore) very unintentional space.

Here’s what really scared me into action: I began to realize that every needless word, every pointless article, every headline I scanned and skipped, every picture that held nothing for me was actually taking (in tiny microscopic bits) my time, my day, my year, and my life. Literally. From myself, from my family, from the creating that I am actually supposed to be doing.

Are those milliseconds? Yes, of course. But those milliseconds add up. I needed to do so serious purging for the same reason that I leave the television set turned off during the day and the same reason that I choose my reading material with care. Those little margins that we reclaim are what make the difference. Were any of those useless pieces of social media, added together, worth one less conversation with Mark, one less game with Miles, one less real book that I actually want to read? Absolutely not.

And so my unfollow campaign began. I determined to squeeze every drop of futility, pretense, and time-wasting out of my feeds. I was going to take back control of my social media accounts.

First, I turned to Instagram. I scanned through my list and unfollowed almost half of my list. To decide if an account stayed or went, I asked myself:

  • Am I personally attached to this person? (I.e., do I talk to this person regularly, do we share life offline, am I interested in hearing about their coffee-cups and family reunions and children?)
  • (If yes to the above, then) Does this person post regularly in this channel? (Or should I be following them somewhere else to more effectively stay in touch?)
  • Am I inspired, encouraged, or motivated by this feed?
  • Do I frequently interact with this person, either in person or through comments, blogs, etc.? (And, if yes, does this person post in this channel regularly?)

If I couldn’t answer yes to one of the above, I unfollowed. (Tip: If you do this, move FAST. Don’t think too long or hard about this. Go with your gut.)

Side-note: Was it weird to unfollow actual friends? Yes. But if we are friends on Facebook (for instance) and we actually interact there, then it doesn’t make sense to also follow them on Instagram. Or vice versa. I used this not as a time to *unfriend* people but to decide whether Instagram was the best possible way to keep up with this friend. If the purpose was already being served via Facebook or Twitter or some other channel, then Instagram was simply duplicative.

The second hard truth about this is that a lot of people that I follow because of “friendship” are not actually my friends. The world of Facebook has made friendship such a funny thing. We think we are connected to people who we will probably never see or talk to again. We think we have long-lasting relationships with people that, were more effort required of the relationship, we wouldn’t consider a part of our circle.

This is harsh, but it’s true. Brothers’ old girlfriends? Not actually my friends. Bridesmaids in weddings that I attended years ago? Not actually my friends. Girlfriends that I text and talk to on a regular or semi-regular basis? There are about 8. There are not 50. If we tell ourselves that we actually have 500 close friends, most of us are lying to ourselves.

Next came Twitter. I used the same questions and unfollowed almost 2/3 of my feed. I follow a lot of news accounts, journalists, etc.  on Twitter for work purposes, but I was still able to do a lot of purging.

Sometimes I would run across an account that was connected to a blog that I loved. But if I followed the blog in Feedly and/or on Pinterest, then it was likely that I was already seeing updates and inspiration from the blog. Again, the principle of duplicative content: DELETE.

At the end of the process, I was annoyed at myself for having followed so many accounts that were so easy to delete for so long. And a little exhilarated, because purging, all purging, is good for the soul.

This morning, when I checked Instagram, there was far less content. And it was refreshing. I actually looked at my Twitter feed this morning because I knew that the channels on there were resources I had intentionally chosen to allow onto my screen.

And then, this afternoon, I spent more time writing, because I had more energy that was not being drained away through the Internet Black Hole of Passive Consumption. Day 1 of my #UnfollowProject was a success.

We need to be creating more and consuming less. Purging your closets, cupboards, and feeds is an easy beginning.

And what about me? What about this blog? My Instagram account? My Twitter feed? If I don’t inspire you, encourage you, motivate you toward better living, please unfollow. Make it the first step in your own #unfollowproject.

The first step of living intentionally is to stop wasting our time on that which is not for us.

(If you’re interested in reading more about this kind of intentional living, check out Richard Swenson’s Margin, one of the most life-changing books I have ever read.)

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  1. This is so great!

    I say that, even though I’m actually moving in the opposite direction. I had my feed so purged after getting off facebook and not being on either instagram or twitter that I’ve started accepting any leatherworking potential pal or potential customer who friends me on facebook. However, I’m starting to feel like my privacy is being invaded, so I’ll probably start kicking them out again. This was definitely a good reminder not to let everything get completely out of control.

    And the instagram thing… definitely. I see everything twice.

    1. I think it’s a never-ending process. After I wrote this, I found myself missing a few feeds in particular and went back to find them. I’m sure, too, it’ll change as Miles gets older and I have to deal with his privacy/telling his vs. my story in a new way. And then they’ll probably invent a NEW SM outlet to worry about.;-)

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