Photographed by Phil Oh

For me, the turning point was halfway through last Fashion Week, when my Instagram feed was officially overwhelmed. No matter how far I scrolled it was the same, repetitive images of blurry runway shots, after-party photos, and carefully staged stacks of invitations. I was annoyed (FOMO!), but I was also bored to tears. The time had come for a major Instagram purge.

For the next hour, I unfollowed dozens of users from my account. I took the Marie Kondo approach: if an image didn’t bring me joy, the user got tossed. Out went the fashion brand that posted incessantly, the celebrity who just couldn’t take a good photo, and the friend of a friend who was, at best, a distant acquaintance. I felt ten pounds lighter!

The next day over Gchat, a friend mentioned that she had dinner with the aforementioned acquaintance the night before. She told me he had been “beyond offended” by my online gesture. I admitted that I may have gotten a little overzealous, but I had only interacted with him a handful of times, and then only briefly! I asked her how he could have known so quickly that I had removed him from my feed. Was he watching his follower account that closely? “He has that app,” she said. “Don’t you know about it?”

Now I do. Unlike Facebook, which allows users to blissfully stalk or ignore their friends in private, like any good citizen, I quickly learned that there are a number of apps that prevent people from doing the same on Instagram. While businesses use them to keep track of their brand’s engagement, individual users have been known to download them to find out who among their followed users don’t follow them back. (A subtle yet very significant Instagram diss.) These apps also feature the added bonus of sending a user an alert when anyone unfollows him or her.

Much to my (and now likely your) dismay, these apps have been around for years. Ana, 26, who works in marketing, first downloaded one of them four years ago when she was handling a client’s social media account. Soon after using it for work, she downloaded it on her personal phone. “I realized that it was a mistake pretty quickly,” she said, after she discovered a good friend of hers had recently unfollowed her. “I started thinking about why he did that and then I saw he was only following about 100 people by then so I didn’t take it personally. But that’s when I realized this could potentially hurt me, so I deleted it.”

Tom*, a 27-year-old video producer, has been using the app for the past two years. He first downloaded it out of curiosity, but he’s kept it on his phone ever since. He tells me about the day he found out a coworker had suddenly unfollowed him. “It was a bit of a surprise. It made me think, ‘what did I do to make you want to unsubscribe to my life?’ ” For Tom, unfollowing is as grave a digital sin as unfriending someone on Facebook. “My Instagram is really personal, so yes, I take it very personally. After she unfollowed me, it made me think about all the interactions in person that we had together, and that maybe they weren’t so genuine. Maybe she was just being courteous because we work together.”

Okay. So I concede that the act of unfollowing someone may come off as technically impolite. But couldn’t the same be said for those who take such serious offense at the matter? Months after my Instagram purge, I happened to run into the acquaintance who I cast off from my feed. He came up to me at a party and asked point blank why I had unfollowed him. Since when do I have to explain how or why I choose to spend my leisurely time online? But turns out, many take our actions on social media as seriously as how we behave in real life. To some, an unfollow is tantamount to a public slap in the face. Since now, apparently.

I’m not the only one who has suffered from a you-unfollowed-me! ambush. Sarah, a 26-year-old stylist, once unfollowed a woman that she used to do freelance work for. “She was just posting random pictures that weren’t even hers. It wasn’t her styling, or her product, or her photography; she was using it like Tumblr,” she explained. She wasn’t into it, so she unfollowed. Ten minutes later, she received a text from a mutual friend confronting her on the matter. “I explained my reasons and I re-followed her but she has since unfollowed me and I haven’t heard from her again,” Sarah said. “She took it as the end of our friendship. But it’s just a screen, it’s just an app!”

There have been countless studies on the negative effects of social media on our psyches. One that came out this week stated the obvious: Comparing yourself to others on Facebook makes you depressed. So why on earth would someone go the extra mile and download an app that only delivered bad news? In this case, wasn’t ignorance bliss?

When I ask my friend Sophia why she still keeps the app on her phone, she tells me about the time she ran into an ancient-history ex at a party. They had stayed friendly and he was now dating another woman, which she also knew from back in the day. She thought she and her ex had had a perfectly pleasant chat that evening, but then the next morning, she awoke to a notification that he had unfollowed her. “I’m not sure if it was him or his girlfriend who made him do it, but it was clear there was some sort of problem with me,” she said. “At least now I know, if I ever see them again in the future.”

During the course of these interviews, I’ll admit I became curious. Who in my life had had enough of me? But ultimately I decided against the download—I was not ready for what I might encounter and how it might make me feel. But Tom ultimately sees the app as an exercise in self-care, at least in the sense that the best defense is a good offense. “Yes, it gives you negative information, but it’s also good for your own sake,” he said. “Social media can be so misleading but there’s some truth to this. It’s a way of understanding people better and their motives. It’s a way for you to have your own back a bit.”

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the digitally sensitive.


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