The case for muting your friends online
“Some people are great IRL and absolutely insufferable online, and to maintain the relationship, you have to avoid them on the internet.”
If any of my friends are reading this, don’t get any ideas. My posts are essential reading. —Kate
No Jacob Wohl, but I was standing in a Brooklyn coffee shop a few weeks ago and overheard a conversation that struck me: Two people were sitting at a table, and one announced that she had just found and followed the other on Instagram. In response, her companion told her to not take it personally, but she never followed back anyone she knew in real life.
I left with my mocha unsure why someone would refuse to follow their friends on social media, but mostly impressed that that person was so comfortable laying out what is surely an uncomfortable digital boundary.
I imagine there’s an expectation across most friend groups that their intimacy be reflected online, at the very least by following and keeping up with one another’s content. But at the same time, digital platforms are places where we can curate our surroundings in ways real life doesn’t allow. I have a digital forcefield protecting me from topics that cause me distress, and similarly can choose who appears on my Instagram and Twitter feeds and who doesn’t. But when applied to people from my real life, I imagine it would be hard not to take any curation as a slight.
The most memorable example of this in my own life was when I went to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour in London before my close friend had a chance to. Knowing I would be sharing pictures from the experience shortly after, she blocked me on Facebook. This anecdote sounds like we were thirteen years old but I just looked it up and we were 20.
When I opened the question of muting friends up to my own Instagram feed, however, I found setting private digital boundaries with people you know in real life was not uncommon.
Some of the responses I received, all of which were submitted anonymously, cited the boundaries we’re all familiar with: muting politically vocal relatives on Facebook, unfollowing an ex, and generally culling “anyone who disrupts my peace of mind and/or I feel like seeing their shit wastes my time,” one 29-year-old wrote.
Others have taken action to counter the increased reliance on their online platforms that they developed, especially during the pandemic.
“Everytime someone said they muted someone else on social, I’d secretly roll my eyes,” one 24-year-old says. “My ego wanted to say how childish, just don’t look! And then Covid happened. Suddenly, my relationship with social media and my peers' online time doubled, if not tripled.”
This has made some people comfortable sharing more about their lives online than others are interested in reading.
“They often share really personal information or stories of their dating life or unresearched beliefs on mental health or friend drama that make me uncomfortable,” wrote one 30-year-old who muted someone she knows on Instagram. “I’m also not very close to them in real life, so it makes me uncomfortable to know this intimate information about them.”
In other cases, some people they know in real life are just too online. One 39-year-old wrote:
“They post at such a rate that their content overloads that of others I am following. So really it’s just a volume issue…I like to see a good balance of content when I choose to wander online.”
But I was especially interested in how things get complicated when the person you’re muting or unfollowing is closer to you—someone you see and interact with on a regular basis.
One 29-year-old said his former roommate, who is part of his larger friend group, posts constantly “about her sex life and unhinged opinions,” and “will engage with you on these topics if she has seen you have seen" her Instagram Story. It would be too dramatic to unfollow someone in his social sphere, he said, so instead he has her muted to save him the awkward conversations.
“Some people are great IRL and absolutely insufferable online, and to maintain the relationship, you have to avoid them on the internet,” one 29-year-old, who mutes certain friends on Twitter and Instagram, said. “Sometimes, it’s temporary—during NBA and NFL season—and other times, it’s permanent because you’re just keeping the following mutual as a courtesy. To me, unfollowing someone is an act of aggression, but muting them is quietly tucking them away like they don’t exist. No harm there.”
And in other cases, muting is a “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” gesture.
“I have one of my friends muted because I felt like her ‘gaze was too strong,’” the 24-year-old wrote. “Stay with me—every time she looked at my content and I looked at hers I just felt judged. Probably a projection but it felt uncomfortable.”
As someone who recently wrote about how being mean online is the same as being mean in real life, I’ve been tango-ing with the concept of friend-muting ever since I left that coffee shop. Ultimately, while it would be potentially uncomfortable to acknowledge IRL, I agree with a 27-year-old who says aggressive muting is part of her online ethos:
“I want everything in my timeline to reinforce my wellness in some tiny way—like I could comment on any random thing in my timeline and it wouldn’t be weird. I don’t want social media to be a space where I could mess up or get sad or feel Less Than. I want to curate it thoughtfully as something I actually enjoy…I mute people if their shit is triggering. Otherwise why would I open Instagram? To get sad and lonely? No, I want to see things I care about and I’m not sorry for unfollowing you if your content doesn’t make me feel good.”