Jessie, a 30-year-old real estate agent, was the last of her friends to join Instagram. The day she signed up, she followed some 60 accounts—friends and acquaintances as well as accounts maintained by clothing brands or celebrities she was interested in. Then she busily set about posting photos.
By the end of the month, she was following more than 200 accounts, most of them people she actually knew, though she had amassed only 15 followers of her own. Of course celebrities wouldn’t follow her back, she reasoned—but she couldn’t help but wonder why some in her circle of friends hadn’t, either. “I took it very personally,” she told me. “Was it that they thought my life was so boring that it wasn’t worth following? Or were we not really friends after all?”
The answer? Well, it could have been both. Or it could have been neither. Perhaps her friends were trying to send her a message. Maybe they didn’t really like her. Perhaps they thought her life was dull beyond belief.
Or maybe it was something far more benign than whatever Jessie could, and did, speculate; something closer to user error or an inadvertent slight. Maybe it was simply that her friends didn’t take social media as seriously as she did, and would have been surprised to learn they’d hurt her. But the intention no longer mattered: Jessie had already begun to question relationships she’d felt fine with just weeks earlier.
Social media-induced angst is happening with increasing frequency. Just as businesses and brands use social media to interact with their target audience and monitor consumer interest, people are using social media to gauge how their friends and acquaintances feel about them. “Likes” may be interpreted as approvals. Not “liking,” not following, or otherwise not engaging might translate into snubs. Since social media etiquette is largely undefined, and there are few universally-understood and followed “rules of engagement,” such interpretation is highly subjective and, in many instances, leans towards the worst-case scenario.
Social media has made many aspects of relationships more accessible: Viewing posts from friends scattered around the world can make you feel more connected to them, while the ubiquity of social media can often make it easier to get in touch with someone than more traditional, “offline” means. But social media also helps fuel feelings of isolation and self-doubt. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, for example, found that the longer people spent on Facebook each week, the more they agreed that everyone else was happier and had better lives.
For some, that self-doubt can be countered in the same place it originates: through affirming social media interactions. This is part of what keeps users coming back to sites like Instagram and Facebook; favorable attention, when achieved, is an addictive sort of reward. It’s also what makes not receiving those affirmations so dispiriting. Being on the short end of someone’s social media endorsements can create feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and irritation, while being too generous with your own social media praise can feel one-sided when left unreciprocated. So, then, can the friendship.
Such feelings are exacerbated when friends don’t follow you back, in the case of Instagram or Twitter or, worse, quit following or “defriend” you, a circumstance so obsessed-over it has inspired a number of web applications with names like Unfollowgram, Friend or Follow, JustUnfollow, iUnfollow, and Unfriend Finder meant to help users determine who dropped them.
When Ben fulfilled a lifelong dream of opening a bookstore, he created a business page on Facebook. Then he invited all 750 of his friends to “Like” it. Barely a quarter of them did, and every day as he monitored his page waiting for the Likes that didn’t come, he grew more and more offended. Hadn’t he always remembered his friend Lisa’s daughter’s birthday? Wasn’t he a caring friend to Danny? And what about Mike, his best man? Friendship, for Ben, became about score keeping. When those friends who’d let him down on social media called on him in real life, he found himself being frosty.
Sure: It’s normal to feel irritated when a friend responds to another friend’s tweets, but never yours. And it’s understandable to feel a twinge of jealousy when you see two friends having fun together at a concert as you sat home watching Netflix in your PJs, unaware they’d made plans without you. It’s even normal, if a new sort of normal, to upload a retaliatory “good time pic” of your own.
But it’s important to remember that as far as barometers of friendship go, social media is pretty shallow. It’s unrealistic, and dangerous, to presume you know how someone feels about you based on how they react or respond to you, or don’t, through virtual means, whether that presumption is positive or negative. How people use social media is too new, and too varied. Judging how someone feels about you is what in-the-moment conversations and face-to-face encounters are for. It’s called real life—remember that?
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com