Unfollow the unnecessary to make room for the significant

Have you ever found yourself on Facebook reading an article about the latest horrors in politics then watching a video of a puppy try to get out of a bucket only to realise you’ve been doing this for 20 minutes now and you only came onto it to find out the surname of that acquaintance you should probably know already?

Yeah, well that’s the kind of thing I have found myself doing daily, recently. And I’m getting a bit sick of it. I believe that our mental health should be taken seriously and social media is affecting that for many of us – me included. So I decided to do something about it, I’m unfollowing everyone and everything off every social network.

The problem with social

Facebook, for one, has absolutely perfected the endless scrolling dopamine fix. Every time I access it I have to try and get in, get out, as quickly as possible. All whilst trying to stay mindful of why I actually went on there in the first place.

I know this sounds pretty trivial, daft even, but that’s what it’s like for me. And I bet if you really thought hard, were really honest with yourself, you’d find the same thing happening to you too. It might not even be Facebook, but some other app or social network; we all do it.

Too often we use social media without any actual purpose. If we ask ourselves the question “why do I use the social media platform X” then I bet most of us wouldn’t actually have a reasonable answer.

For example, if I were to ask you “why do you use Facebook?” I would bet the answer might answer “to stay in touch with my friends” and sure, for some, that may be true. But let’s do a little truth test, let’s monitor exactly what you do on Facebook whilst you are on it to see just how much you use it for actually “staying in touch with friends”.

Seriously: do you even talk to friends on it? Or do you, like most of us, end up distracted watching some prank video, or being gobsmacked by headlines of articles you never properly read, or just nosey about in someone else’s profile pictures?

Every social network now is designed to retain our attention for as long as possible, so that they can sell our attention to advertisers. This is the main purpose of social networks (at least, it is today). Which means that we’re persuaded and rewarded for our time and attention, through mini hits of pleasure responses in our brains from the cleverly designed interfaces of the applications.

Social media is negatively affecting our lives. It’s a useful tool at the right moments, but with that comes the potential of great cost to our attention, awareness and even our overall mental health when 1 in 6 of us suffer from a mental health condition.

It feels good when we get a Like, or a Love, or a Share, or when we are simply rewarded by clicking on a button or link to open up that piece of content. It’s all user engagement, and the gold dust of the social network because it means you are spending your time there, consuming.

I’m someone who focuses on finding time for myself, to give space. And not just space and time to consume more on social networks, but to actually take care of myself and in turn those around me.

Similarly, I frequently find myself feeling negative emotions whilst on my social media networks. Often this is seeing yet more injustice in the world, in politics, or even just things my friends are doing that I don’t agree with. I want to use my social networks for a purpose, so I need to define what that purpose is for each network.

What do I actually want to get out of Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? Do I really need all this noise invading my mind? I truly believe humans weren’t built for this, and I find that stripping back the unnecessary and going back to the human basics goes a really long way.

The rules of the unfollowing experiment

So I say no more to the near pathological twitch and removing the noise. But let’s define some ground rules:

  • Facebook friends will save the axe unless I deem them to not to actually be friends anymore; but I will unfollow every single page or person I simply ‘follow’
  • Twitter will find itself completely axed of all those I currently follow
  • Instagram will too result in unfollowing every person/page/business

More than anything this is an experiment in significance and importance. By removing everything, only then will I be able to have a clear view of these networks and know exactly what I miss. The pages, people, and accounts that I feel myself missing will be the ones I will consider bringing back. How else would you know what you miss without stripping yourself of it?

Once I have unfollowed every page or account, I will then have a blank slate on which to selectively bring pages/accounts back into my atmosphere. If I can’t remember a particular page to refollow, then surely it’s not actually that important.

Too often we follow — because it’s so easy to do — without realising the information overload we are subjecting ourselves to and so we end up following hundreds of people or pages, some we barely know, and what good is that doing for us?

Even the follows that I feel right now I am going to most definitely follow once again, I am unfollowing. Because I might be pleasantly surprised by that which I leave behind, and some without even realising it, but will overall be lighter due to the reduced noise and messages and imagery being pumped into my head.

This isn’t an experiment in being selective, curating, or pruning. It is an experiment in periodic deprivation to identify wholeheartedly that which is of importance to me.

Let the unfollow commence: Facebook

Update: Since releasing this article, I have discovered an incredibly powerful tool called Nudge. This Chrome browser extension allows you to, in just a couple of clicks, unfollow everything and everyone on your Facebook account. Bear in mind with this, that this means your news feed will (theoretically) become entirely blank; none of your friends status updates, nothing from groups, and most certainly nothing from pages now that they’re all unfollowed. By using this method you’re able to strip away everything on your Facebook account and do the important thing to then choose what is important to you and what is essential to show in your Facebook news feed. Now back to the original article…

Let’s get cracking. The first thing I wanted to tackle is Facebook, because it seems to be one of the worst braindead-scroll-fests for me personally. I also decided, that for myself, Facebook should be a place for me to engage with my friends. Partly I want to see what Facebook would look like with purely friends talking on my feed, but I also really want to reduce the temptations on it.

So I needed to go to my Liked Pages (Pages > Liked Pages) to see the damage. I did a count, it came up to 290. 290! Why did I need to follow 290 Facebook pages? Surely I don’t even see all of the content from this many pages, and how many still post anyway?

As you can see, a snapshot of the things I apparently am interested in. Some make sense, some not so much. But alas there is a handy button in the top right to Get Started to ‘Review Liked Pages’ — result, seems like they’re making life simple for me.

Unfortunately, I seem to have to go down every single page and tick it manually which then moves it over into the ‘Pages to unlike’ field. But I get through them, click next, and hit Save to confirm.

It brings me back to my Liked Pages page but nothing is different, a slight page bug I think to myself so I give it a refresh but alas yet nothing changes. A little bit of messing around with it, and I discover that it seems that this ‘Review Liked Pages’ only works for 5 pages or so at a time as I had varying results with how many pages it actually unfollowed/unliked when I chose just 5, 10, or 20.

Basically, Facebook’s ‘Review Liked Pages’ seems to be rubbish for actually accomplishing that task. I’ve given up using it, and instead am going to click onto every single page and manually unlike them. I can’t say I’m surprised that this functionality doesn’t work as why would Facebook want you to unlike pages I wonder, perhaps to have more relevant data for your profile such as interests but that’s a long shot.

So instead I CMD+Click on every page within Liked Pages, 10 at a time, to open into new tabs then jump on every page and click the Unlike button. This, unshockingly, works. What I noticed as I was doing so, and as emotions crept in about certain pages I follow — no wait not this one I love this one! — I began to be able to justify the reason for unliking each page because when you give a moment to think about it with a clear mind it’s actually pretty easy to remove each one.

I’d ask questions like “Have I ever engaged/participated with this person/page?”, “Is this service even relevant to me locally?” (I noticed I follow a lot of stuff that has a geographical focus in other countries from my own), and “Is this actually making my life better, making me smarter, helping me to learn and grow, or is it not?”. I also found that, for me, I really need to simplify and strip down the information I take in about a particular subject.

Whilst it is good to be open-minded and have a growth mindset to any subject, I also think it’s important for me right now to be selective and commit to a process. No longer do I want to follow 10+ pages about natural movement and fitness, I only need to follow one and use the advice and information from them until I have completely maximised the potential growth with that knowledge before moving on.

I have often had my own analogy for being stretched out amongst too much, when we stretch ourselves out across too many relationships, too many things to do, too many books, too many worries and anything else then we stretch ourselves out thin and no longer are we whole and bringing the best version of ourselves to what we do. I’m reminded of this through this stripping away of social media noise, because I’m noticing how my attention is being stretched across too much making my attention to any one thing almost insignificant and thus, in the end, pointless. If I want to do anything well and with my full passion then I need to commit a significant amount of my attention and energies to it in order to see a return of growth.

Liking every good natured charitable page I see doesn’t actually do a whole lot for that motion, in fact having that kind of mindset to it isn’t supporting it at all, it’s letting it become drown out with the competitive noise of all every other good cause. What actually helps a good cause is by getting your hands dirty and giving up some real time and attention.

We should be educating ourselves on the realities of the issues around us, but we don’t get anywhere by pointing at the problem and saying “that’s bad, I wish it was different” do we? We get somewhere by getting stuck in and working hard at something for the greater good. So yes that means even you, homeless puppy shelter, are being unliked, because I am offering nothing to you in this current state; you need real action, not meaningless vanity metrics. Unfollowing or unliking a person or organisation does not mean I don’t care about said person or org, it simply means I wish to remove the clutter from my social presence so I can benefit from a clearer mind which can then give real time, energy, passion and commitment to the person or project in a real world meaningful way.

About an hour or so later, eventually you get down to a final few and every time you unlike something a new one pops up in its place. This is where I realise that there is a ‘Like’ on ‘Interests’ too, which is somehow connected but you still need to go around unliking each of these to stop them from displaying on the ‘Liked Pages’ page.

It seems to be something to do with Facebook merging pages from an old format into the new one where everyone and everything has its own Page. So you need to click on the unofficial page to unlike that, to fully get rid of it.

In any case, we’re making progress. The KONY 2012 box doesn’t actually let me unlike it for some reason, it’s a straight link redirect to another website which is very odd but hopefully eventually I’ll work out how to remove that too, along with all these other ‘interests’. Somewhere on Facebook I’ve entered in my favourite TV shows and movies, but I can’t find out where or how to quickly rectify this. But then, I get through them all! I unlike everything I possibly can, and yet KONY 2012 still haunts me as. But my main job is done, I remain with only one liked page, Zen Millennial, of course.

Naturally, I go back to my home page feed to see what the results might be. In all honesty, it hasn’t changed a huge amount. Facebook is still dominated by adverts in my feed as is the norm, and in between that I see things from pages that my friends have shared for others to see, and on top of that because I now am not following anything I see something new called “Recommended for you” with a big encouraging ‘Like Page’ button.

There’s also a realisation that I’m a part of various Facebook groups, both public and private. Of which only 2–3 I probably participate in. So a new minimisation begins, and I remove myself from every group I haven’t participated/engaged in (and having a look at does not count) recently that don’t depend on me as an admin. Once again I have stripped away noise that is not of use to me, and I of no use to it.

After all of that effort, I’m not yet entirely sure what I accomplished. Because of the way Facebook is designed, which is to maximise advertising, you never really get away from the noise altogether. But at least now I can clearly differentiate between what is noise on it, and what I actually want to use it for — which is to keep up with, stay in touch with, and make plans with close friends and communities. When I open Facebook now, I should be better equipped to notice the noise and ignore it whilst I focus on my friends.

Wherefore art thou Twitter?

After tackling the largest animal, I decided to go into Twitter. Again I don’t want to have to click every button to unfollow accounts, even if Twitter make it a fair bit easier it still is a long manual process.

So I do some googling, and I happen across a YouTube video from 2015 that suggests using a bit of console script to get the browser to click on every unfollow button for me.

So it’s essentially saying to the browser: for every button named this, click on it and repeat until there are no more buttons left. I try it a couple of times, and it seems to unfollow a few people but probably bugging out from the script making the browser go a bit nuts. But then I realise that the page itself doesn’t bring up every person you are following unless you scroll down to the bottom of the page to force it to load more accounts. So I scroll to the bottom of the page, over and over again, until every single account shows up — then I run the script. My browser freaks out for a 10 seconds, I refresh the page, and every account I follow has disappeared (pretty much, just had to manually click on a few!).

And then you discover what your bio looks like when you don’t follow anyone, it just doesn’t even mention it. Now that’s minimal design, nice! Once you’ve unfollowed everyone, your timeline remains as it was before you unfollowed everyone, so the top tweet on my timeline is from 18h ago as I write this and will remain like that until I follow someone again.

How to Insta-ntly unfollow everyone

So I move over to Instagram, which is another Facebook product and expect this to be not quite as easy as Twitter. With a bit of better knowledge now, I go to Google first to find the best way to do it. Once again YouTube comes to the rescue with a video from a young chap that suggests using an app called InstaClean. But I try out the app, and they call each action an ‘operation’, you get 40 for free but of course you have to pay for more. I’m following around 450 people, which would cost me around £4–5 to fix. I don’t feel like spending money on something I’m sure I could get done for free with a bit of elbow grease so its back to the drawing board, but I did want to point this out as a good option for those willing to pay for it.

Another quick Google, and I find Fast-Unfollow.com which gives you 200 unfollows for free. I think at least if I can get 200 out of the way it will mean 200 less for me to do manually. So I make an account, set it up, and get it started and just play the waiting game.

After a couple hours of waiting, this application successfully unfollowed 200 accounts. I then decided to use InstaClean and use up the free 45 ‘operations’ to unfollow another 45 accounts. And for the rest, I resorted to opening the Instagram app on my phone and manually hitting Unfollow and then Confirm on every account.

And before I knew it, I was now following zero pages or accounts on my main social platforms.

A few feelings kept cropping up in my mind as I did these actions:

  • Mild guilt for unfollowing friends, family, and people/things I really like. What if they noticed?
  • Concern that I would forget about a certain person or account, like I still had some undiscovered use for it, because for a large part of my social media usage I would hit Follow or Like just to ‘save for later’ and then never really engage with that account or make use of it.

But even with these feelings I stayed the course and got the job done, feeling much lighter for it. Now I begin on a more selective path for social media usage, for one I feel I need to define for myself what exactly I am using each platform for; as in, what aim or goal am I trying to get out of it currently and what do I actually want to get out of it? I also need to be aware that by being non-selective I’m just allowing for noise and losing any kind of purpose and intentionality behind my use of social media. So let’s break it down:

  • Facebook: I want to primarily use this to actually connect and engage with friends and communities, as this is the best place to do just that. I will however, somewhat hypocritically, use it as I have previously to promote my own content and work on a professional level but try to do so in such a way that doesn’t add to the noise for anyone but actually provides value.
  • Twitter: I feel happier to use this platform as my medium for news intake that I care about, so we’re talking things more political, environmental & ethical, and seeing what my professional peers and idols are getting up to but still with a harsh selection process whereby if I don’t feel like I am engaged fully with the person or account then it won’t be re-entering the follows.
  • Instagram: Where once Instagram was an app to share fun photos of your life, it has become a completely different animal particularly with the power of Facebook behind it. So again, it is an advertisement fuelled service, and I’ll treat it as such. But I have found Instagram to be a good place to partake in the conversations with people and communities around wellbeing, mental health, and similar and so I will continue to use it as a tool for sharing my own story in these areas and to inspire and motivate others too, but it will be focused around my work within these topics rather than a personal insight into my life, as to me that is what Facebook is for; my close friends.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is other pruning that can be done, and I will continue to do. Such as pruning away Facebook friends who aren’t actually friends. I’m the kind of person that isn’t bothered about what people from my distant past are doing today, they have their own lives and I have mine, both them and I will meet countless new people in our lives and it doesn’t necessarily mean we should always be in contact forever simply because we know of each others’ existence.

We are in a society whereby we can choose our friends, and choose what kind of information we wish to share with them. I prefer to try and match up my actual friends with those friends I have on Facebook, because then I can use it as a one-stop-shop for staying connected with those I genuinely want to — it just makes life a bit easier.

I also want to throw a mention to Snapchat, an app that once upon a time I enjoyed using profusely. But alas the benefits and swift improvements of Instagram have surpassed it for my liking. I like to create a ‘story’ of my day, but I don’t want to have to do it in two places and for the most part I share a story of my day when there’s things related to mental health & wellbeing to talk about — and Instagram is where I do that — not necessarily to show people what I’m doing every minute of the day. As a result of this, I decided to deactivate my account and after 30 days it will cease to exist — cya ✋

What I learnt from the whole tedious, obsessive, impractical-use-of-time experience

So what have I learnt with all this effort and time? Here’s another neat little list:

  • Social networks don’t make it easy to unfollow or unlike, generally. You’d think pruning would better define you within advertising data and they would want to promote that, but I’m not so sure. It’s more of a how many advertisers can we sell you to method.
  • How much crap you will follow over the years, without even a hesitation. “I like that one tweet I should follow them” or even being recommended by a page you already follow to follow another page or person, but by just doing that we’re not necessarily engaging with what this new person or page stands for. We shouldn’t be so blindly encouraged to like and follow everything, it doesn’t do much positive for us. But social media is designed for this consuming behaviour.
  • We absolutely hold onto a sense of validation with the vanity metrics of followers, and we give real world value to it even though there essentially is none. Does having 1000 Twitter followers make you happier, better at sports, have more actual friends, or even more successful? Nope.
  • It led me to carefully thinking about what the hell kind of media do I want to consume? Think about this one a few times over; what kind of information through my media do I want to consume, rather than what media producers/creators want me to consume? We’re so used to being given everything on a platter, including our information, that we’ve become tuned to just sitting at the dinner table and letting them serve it to us without question. Every piece of media we consume is telling some kind of story and is often political in some way so let’s actually start to ask questions before letting information into our understanding of the world. There’s no automated fact checker wired into our brains, so we need to start choosing to be more aware.
  • I also felt excitement about dedicating my attention to very selective outlets of information, such as in the topic of fitness, by deciding to commit to the processes and advice by one institution rather than washing my brain with confusion from information overload.

Perhaps all of this effort seems a bit too much for you and I get it but my hope, with me acting as the guinea pig, you will be able to intake some of my own discoveries and apply a more mindful approach to your social media consumption and choices on the information you ‘follow’.

Then maybe, together, we can all put down our phones and laptops a bit more and go outside in the sun just a bit more and breathe in the real world.