The Internet is rejoicing over Instagram’s announcement that it will be adding a “mute” button, allowing you to silence posts and stories from accounts you find annoying but don’t want to unfollow. Including but not limited to: Your exes, your friends who can’t stop posting proof of their blissful relationship, anyone who’s posting too many baby pics, or documenting so many avocado toasts they actually add up to a down payment on a home.
In a statement Tuesday, Instagram said “the accounts you mute will not be aware that you’ve muted them. You can always unmute an account to get their posts back in your feed.” The New York Times calls the mute button “so desperately needed.” CNN describes it as a “less aggressive option” than unfollowing someone, a severing of ties that the Ringer deems “the harshest of social media punishments.”
Since no one will know once you’ve hit the mute button, and you can undo it at any time, Instagram has brought us the quietest, most nonconfrontational and noncommittal way to reject someone in an age when we’re terrified of commitment, rejection and confrontation. (Facebook, which owns the image-sharing platform, has a similar “snooze” feature.)
Instagram says the mute button will be helpful for “managing complex social dynamics.” But what it really hammers home is how bad humans have become at managing complex social dynamics on our own. If unfollowing someone on social media is considered an “aggressive” form of rejection, no wonder we’re having trouble outright severing ties in deeper, romantic relationships, choosing to instead say nothing, or ghost, far more often than we should. Muting someone without unfollowing reinforces the notion that any rejection is bad, when it’s actually a natural, normal part of life. Not all relationships are meant to last forever, even if they’re only social media connections.
Why is it so hard to unfollow someone, especially if that person or brand is unlikely to notice you’ve left? When a reporter for Racked asked her colleagues at other Vox media properties to list whom they would mute and why, the reasons make it sound like unfollowing someone is an egregious offense, when all you really have to do is hit a button and that person is unlikely to even notice. The Vox employees said they would mute but not unfollow someone because they have history with that person (maybe they were friends since childhood, but they’re not close anymore); or they would mute but not unfollow people who were tangential or no longer relevant to their life (a girlfriend’s sister, an ex-boyfriend’s friends, a professional contact who might come in handy later).
“I think it’s something people wanted for a very long time,” Natalie Franke, an Instagram user with about 60,000 followers, told the New York Times. “Because there are apps that allow people to see who has unfollowed them, there is this fear that by unfollowing someone you could upset them and create an uncomfortable situation, whether that is personal or professional.”
Social media is in its awkward teenage years, where we’re still figuring out how to function within it. Coping with unfriending or unfollowing is essentially about learning to live with rejection, a life skill that’s rarely taught but sorely needed. Kerry Cronin, a philosophy professor at Boston College, even tries to weave it into her curriculum. When asked why she gives an assignment where students are to ask one another out on dates, part of her answer was that she wanted them to learn that rejection doesn’t have to be crippling. Practicing asking people out and inevitably experiencing rejection, she says, can teach her students that your “ego strength” doesn’t come from someone else, Cronin says, citing a Freudian term. Perhaps her students should also practice unfriending and unfollowing folks who are no longer key figures in their life, just to see how easy, freeing and inconsequential it can be.
If we embrace whatever discomfort arises from online “slights,” rather than avoid them, they eventually become easier to weather. The more we practice rejection — both doling it out and absorbing it respectfully, online and off — the less likely it is to hurt.