A couple of months ago, I decided to download the unfollower app and subsequently ruin my own life.
It all started with an unsuspecting conversation with a coworker, who was complaining about an old friend who had stopped following her out of the blue. A self-professed Instagram savant, I was confused by her insider info: How did she possess this knowledge? That’s when she unleashed upon me the secret of the Unfollower app: An app that tracks who doesn’t follow you back, who you choose not to follow back, and, perhaps most scandalously, who chooses to unfollow you. Overcome by curiosity and thrilled by the prospect of identifying all my nemeses, I quickly downloaded the app.
For the first week or so, it seemed like a welcome blessing. I’d refresh my profile every so often, just to track any unexpected changes. I could monitor the disloyal and reward the faithful—Gretchen from that Canadian camp in summer ‘05 decided to jump ship? Good riddance! I’d hit her with an immediate unfollow. Cousin Tara’s new boyfriend followed me back, despite only meeting me once over drunk kebabs? I’d be sure to throw his latest post a “like.” I found the app to be amusing, another frivolous way of passing time, if not a meaningless exertion of energy, no different from many other social media platforms.
Still, engaging with the unfollower app requires something that feels distinctly un-chill. Which is why I was surprised to learn my friend Ariel, whose laissez faire attitude to Instagram I’ve always admired, was an active user. “I use the unfollower app as a way of filtering the people I follow, ideally those I don’t care to be following in the first place but still feel like I can’t unfollow,” Ariel explained to me.“If I find out someone [like that] unfollowed me, I immediately unfollow too. It’s a way of editing down the unwanted content I consume. Obviously, it goes both ways, and I get offended for a second when I find out someone unfollowed me first. But ultimately, I just like to know.”
Her explanation made perfect sense, but my experience with the app soon transformed into something much more. Like a toxic relationship, I began closely monitoring my follower count, obsessively refreshing the app every time I watched the number take a dip. I’d anxiously pour over the profile of whoever unfollowed me, scrutinizing their content, resenting them for opting out of my own. What had I done to deserve this treatment? I’d wonder, rolling my eyes at my new sworn enemy’s fifth picture of her dog. Why does this stranger hate me?
“The unfollower app is disorienting because you aren’t given a reason why they unfollowed you,” Bea, 18, told me over Instagram DM. “The feeling it gives you is similar to when someone you know ignores you when you smile at them in passing.”
After a few weeks with the app, I realized my curiosity hadn’t just devolved into paranoia, it had become a kind of narcissism. I was assuming everyone who chose to unfollow me held a ruthless vendetta. And by dragging my followers into this egocentric point of view, I had inadvertently revealed my vainest tendency: assuming that everyone who affects me is acting with intention—as if I am the protagonist in everyone else’s life. But I can’t unpack this kind of egotism without talking about insecurity, for the two are innately linked, like symbiotic organisms using each other as a life force. When someone I admire follows me, for instance, it boosts my ego for the same reason an unfollow bruises it: Some part of me believes I’m only as valid as the attention I get.
What I find especially unsettling, about all of this, is how I still haven’t deleted the app, despite knowing how much it eats away at my self-esteem. Refreshing my unfollower count is like bad reality TV—it isn’t logical, but I can’t look away either. Which is why I want to ask: Have you ever used the unfollower app? Do you care if people unfollow you, or think twice before hitting the unfollow button yourself? Do you believe egotism and insecurity through the lens of social media are thick as thieves or two separate self-cons?