We Need to Talk about Social (Media) Etiquette: The Follow/Unfollow Method


Imagine being invited to a party by someone you just met— you’re excited because they seem popular and fun, someone you believe to have things in common with. You accept their invitation and RSVP that you’ll be attending— you’re now on the guest list. 

A few days pass, and it’s time to attend the party. You make the effort to show up only to find that you’re no longer on the list. There is no reason for them to have uninvited you, but still, there you are, cast aside as everyone else seemingly enters without issue.  Later, you find out from an insider, the host just wanted to make their crowd look as large as possible so that people recognized them. Many of those turned away were, at one time, on the list too.

Most of us (hopefully) wouldn’t do that to someone in real life, but it happens every second of every day on Instagram. For those of us that utilize the platform as a regular business strategy, the ‘Follow/Unfollow’ epidemic is all too common. So prolific, in fact, it’s how almost every self-proclaimed snake oil ‘Instagram expert’ cajoles you into growing your following— sometimes even, shamefully, making you pay for that low-level advice.

Hiding behind a smart phone makes it easier to ‘unfollow’ someone than having to flatly reject them outright, in person. It’s a practice essentially saying, “I want you to pay attention to what I’m doing, but it’s totally OK that I ignore you” without having to actually utter the words. And when you put it that way, doesn’t it seem pretty pathetic?

I may sound bitter or jealous of the ‘success’ that comes with a larger follower count, but it’s much bigger than that. I spent my entire undergraduate experience learning about, researching and analyzing how media affect each one us; I ended up with a degree that deems me skillful at interpreting that data. Now, I feel like I’ve spent the last ten years since just scratching the surface; trying to discover the crux of what makes us all so self-serving in the digital world.  

This digital dalliance, to me, as someone who so deeply values the collaboration over competition mentality, makes the practice even more despicable. It’s alarming to think that quantity of clout, for purely personal gain, supersedes the quality of community, for the good of what you’re message is supposed to be. We continuously strive for, and celebrate, the wrong ideal— and it’s time to make a change.

I find myself unsurprised, but, too, so disappointed in the way we wield this ominous power. We’ve normalized turning real humans into a commodity because we want to reach that ‘next level’ of success.  I feel so strongly about this that I won’t mince words, the ‘Follow/Unfollow’ Instagram strategy is pervasive bullshit— and if you’re one of the many users that utilize this as your primary growth ‘strategy’— shame on you.

I know we can do better. I talk regularly with my friends in the industry— probably to their chagrin, I say it that much— about how the ‘social’ pendulum will inevitably swing back the other way. I look forward to a day when we’ll stop caring so deeply about how many ‘followers’ someone has— and ingratiating their popularity with sponsorship, gifts, money and the like.

As I speak about this, I'm reminded of the song 'Captain' by Jason LeVasseur, an incredible, little-known songwriter who I discovered in my early days of college. "Captain, oh Captain I fear that we're sinking and none of us know how to swim... when you whisper life's great lessons, scream a little louder so that I can hear." Give it a listen, you'll understand how the sentiment fits perfectly with this post. We're sinking fast, and we don't even realize it. 

It’s the perfect time for us to begin to become real leaders, thought provokers and arbiters of change; it’s time to do the real work. Even when we know what’s right is not always popular. Even if it means that we have to scream a little louder because our circle is smaller, I promise, those who matter, they’ll still hear you.