Why an Instagram mute button is essential in the age of social media sensitivity

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Instagram’s new function will allow users to mute other accounts - but is it really necessary? Absolutely, argues Stylist’s Moya Lothian-McLean

“Instagram finally has a mute button,” I excitedly announced to the Stylist office when the news dropped.

“What for?” quizzed one of my colleagues.

“You know… for when you want to hide someone annoying from your timeline,” I explained. She was nonplussed.

“Why don’t you just unfollow them?”

It is the great question of our time. Why, when someone is irritating you on social media, needling at your being with content so banal you want to seize them by the shoulders, stare deep into their soul and scream “WHITE WALLS AND AN ARTFULLY PLACED SUCCULENT DO NOT A BLOGGER MAKE,” do you not just press the button designed for such an occasion? Go nuclear. Unfollow. 

Because, as with everything else in life, it’s just not that simple. Look, I’ll show you. Le’ts play a game of hypothetical:

1) A friend has posted her 13th blurry picture in the last 24 hours of her new schnauzer puppy, Ralph. It’s mostly snout, as have been the previous 10. “Hope you like doggos because there’s going to be a LOT of pics,” she has written in the caption, alongside the hashtag #notsorry. Ralph is going to live a long and happy life. Lovingly documented.

Unfollow: there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet Ralph at the park.

2) A former co-worker you were close to – as in, post-work drinks at Kettners and confessions about that adulterous kiss on a Hvar mini-break close – is documenting the step-by-step renovations of the three-bed she bought after migrating to one of the Shires. Sometimes she runs polls on Insta Stories. “Walk in shower or claw foot bath?” she asks. You see it just before transferring this month’s rent for your four-person flatshare.

Unfollow, especially if you’re London based.

3) Your cousin has children.

Like a puppy, but 10 times worse. You know what you must do. Push. The. Button.

“I’m happy to unfollow accounts,” says Emma, 30. “A few months ago, in the pursuit of mindfulness, I had a proper follow cleanse and deleted the over-sharers and the folks I don’t keep in touch with in real life. My feed has become a lot better as a result.” In cases like Emma’s, unfollowing can be a tool for a clearer mind, especially if you’re ridding your timeline of toxic people or lost loves. It’s healthy, positive and uncomplicated. 

What if, though, it turns out your cousin has recently installed an app that tells him when someone jumps ship from his social media? You have a choice, when he texts you (because he will, almost immediately), to either explain that you find pictures of your adorable extended family extremely irritating, or to lie and say it was an accident and smash that re-follow button as fast as your sweaty digits will allow. Really, it is no choice at all, unless you want to navigate extremely frosty familial relations at the next big gathering.

Or perhaps your former co-worker has a private profile. Before unfollowing, you had been meaning to text her when the house was done, and go up for a weekend in the country and re-connect. But now when you check in to see what she’s doing you’re stopped dead by the frustrating little padlock symbol that prevents any non-followers from creeping on le profil privé. Eventually you stop checking because it’s far too humiliating to re-follow and admit you had cast her off in the first place. You’ve got no idea what’s she’s up to until about four years later when she’s tagged in a Facebook picture taken by another ex-colleague. She’s got a baby. It looks quite big. The stage for “Congratulations!” has almost certainly passed.

The problem with the unfollow button is that social media is sensitive. In a world where celebrities wield follows on Instagram and Twitter to communicate who’s breaking up, making up or simply as a means to disassociate themselves from claiming slavery is a choice, there’s a social media minefield to navigate when unsubscribing from someone’s content. Particularly if the relationship with them spills over into the real world because, let’s face it, unfollowing an influencer you’ve never met is not the kind of difficult decision the mute button has been invented to alleviate. 

Instead, the mute function is here to protect your real life connections. Much as it would be nice to pretend that what happens online stays online and something like, say, a tweet could never kick off Cold War III: Pyongyang Drift, it’s just not true. Ask a person who’s been fired for their bad behaviour on the internet, or somebody whose relationship has fallen apart after online infidelity. Everything has real world consequences and there’s a delicate dance of social media etiquette to be performed to prevent those actions causing problems with the people you care about. Is it absurd that clicking a button can alter a friendship? Yes. Does that matter? No. It still affects everyone who uses such platforms.

“So many of us choose to share very personal elements of our lives on social media,” remarked co-founder of mental wellbeing app Remente, David Brudo, in a 2016 article for Headspace.

“Receiving an unfollow can make us feel like we are not living up to expectation, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt and insecurity.”

“I have the Unfollowers app,” says 24-year-old Elena. “It tells me everyone who unfollows my account; it stings when someone does. It hurts because it’s like they’re saying you’re irrelevant or not interesting enough to follow. Unfollowing isn’t about being a grown up; you follow people in the same way you greet them in public. We have obligations to people we know and it’s not nice to ignore them. To me, unfollowing says ‘I don’t like you’.” 

It’s already been heavily reported that seeing a consistent stream of unrealistic imagery is bad for your mental health and Instagram has ranked as the worst social media platform for exposing users to such content. And whilst on one hand, a mute function can help prevent people you know and care about from feeling the pain of inadequacy when unfollowed, more importantly it has the potential to wipe imagery users find damaging from the platform altogether. 

“I love the idea of a mute button,” Hayley, 27, tells me. “I find the Kardashians forced upon me, like pregnancy advertisements. But whereas I can buy an adblocker to prevent those, there’s still pictures of the Kardashians on my discovery page. Muting could prevent that.”

It’s pretty impossible to wipe every mention of a certain image type or topic from Instagram in the same way you can on Twitter, where muting accounts means you can’t see when others interact with or retweet them, which has scrubbed great evils like alt-right trolls and Ricky Gervais from my timeline. But muting on Instagram could at least provide a more consistent method to make sure you never see an appetite suppressant lolly again. The power to mute certain accounts that may be thrown up on your traitorous discovery feed – algorithm be dammed – will allow a far more permanent removal of images that trigger negative feelings. 

The mute is a force for good. Because it’s not healthy, this resentment we feel about our nearest and dearest when faced with another limply-captioned latte swirl. It’s not good for our souls to exist on a precipice of simmering rage, just one more gym selfie away from full combustion. But the extreme of unfollowing – and in the warped world of online, this is an unambiguous slap in the face, whether you like it or not – can be equally damaging. In an ideal world, none of this would matter. We would see our friends regularly and call every week and live in a big house with flowers and a dog and also win the lottery. But social media is a glue that binds our friendships together: those who’ve moved oceans apart, or lead busy lives at different ends of the same country or even busy lives in different ends of the same city. 

I have unfollows I regret. Women who are lost to the ether because it was painful to see them continuing to live lifestyles we’d parted ways over. But Instagram had been my last touchstone with these women and perhaps, one day, could have been the prompt that brought us back together. Now all I see when I think of them is a sad little padlock, reminding me I cut that final chord and locked myself out, possibly forever. Bring on the option to take time out instead of tap out I say.

Now, Instagram – let’s talk chronological feeds.

Images: iStock/Instagram