Welcome to 'Beyond the Grid', a VICE UK column about Instagram.
There’s nothing more satisfying than smashing that ‘unfollow’ button on Instagram. Maybe it’s someone you went on a few dates with but then they got a girlfriend so it feels pointless. Maybe it’s an ex-colleague you politely followed two years back but now they just post photos of their fiancé’s unseasoned cooking (who they keep calling “the fiancé”) and who can be arsed. Or maybe you had a good old-fashioned falling out with someone and are feeling petty. Either way, it feels nice to cleanse your digital space every once in a while.
Muting someone, however, is a little more complicated. You’re essentially saying: I don’t want to see updates about your life, but I don’t want you or anyone else to know about it. In that way, it’s less public, but arguably more personal, than unfollowing. And the reasons we mute people aren’t always because we straight up dislike them. When I look at my muted list, for instance, there are a whole range of names on there and some of them would probably be surprised, offended even, if they knew I’d done the internet equivalent of walking away whenever they speak.
When I ask people why they mute others, one reason comes up regularly: They’re simply too conventionally good-looking and it’s stressful. “There’s this friend of a friend who is so fit it’s like... ugh!” 22-year-old Kiana tells me. “I’ve met her and she’s really nice, so it’s not a personal vendetta or anything. Unfollowing would feel a bit mean. But when you’re constantly bombarded with someone’s glowing skin and toned body it makes you think, ‘Oh, why don’t I look like that? Should I go on a diet?’ and that feels like a really negative headspace. Muting her means I can bypass that feeling.”
Alice, who’s 26, has muted a couple of people for similar reasons. Not because of how they look, per se, but because their lifestyle makes her feel bad. “I muted one person who always seems to be on holiday with a cocktail in her hand, or lounging by a pool on a Greek island and it makes me feel jealous to be honest,” she says, laughing down the phone. “I’d get pissed off that she’s got the money to do that while I’m stuck in a cafe barely making rent.” Why not unfollow? “It feels harsh and I might change my mind,” Alice says. “It’s not a permanent thing, just feels good for now.”
Sometimes, though, muting isn't tied up with any sort of negative feeling. Instead, it's tactical. Alex, who's 24, tells me they mute the stories (but not the posts) of certain people they fancy so that their name doesn't always appear immediately, at the top of their stories list. “I know that if their story comes up at the top I'm going to be clicking on it because I can't help myself, and then the more I click on it, the more their story will show up,” they explain. “And if my name is always there after like two minutes of them posting, I'm just going to look desperate! This way I can make sure that I can at least retain some aloofness, you know?”
Another common reason that comes up when asking around is that a person might be perfectly fine IRL, but annoying online. “Some people are nice in person but the absolute WORST on social media, so I consider muting a kindness,” Rosie, who's 25, tells me over Insta DM. Twenty-three-year-old Bobbie echoes this sentiment: “There are friends who I physically hang out with on a weekly basis who I have now muted,” she says. “One girl posts constant updates; what she's eating for dinner, how she's feeling that day, or sometimes it's just her face? I would never unfollow her because she's my friend, but it's tiring have to tap through her stories every five seconds. I have a life!”
You might wonder now if you've been muted on Instagram – I sometimes do. Surely, statistically, someone out there must have done it? Maybe your posts are lowkey irritating, or maybe a seemingly subtle humblebrag put followers in a bad mood. Or perhaps it's arrogant to assume that we're on anyone's radar at all. But I wonder how some of these muters might feel if they found out they'd been muted themselves. “Depends on the reason,” Alice says. “If it was because I was making someone feel bad about themselves, I probably wouldn't care because it's almost a compliment. But if it was because I was annoying, I'd be upset about that.”
I know what she means. Instagram is a strange, unforgiving place that rewards people for being aesthetically pleasing and makes others feel irrelevant if they're not. And to a lot of people, there’s nothing worse than irrelevance. So if somebody mutes you because your posts are that affecting, maybe it’s confirmation that you’re making some sort of impact. Although that’s a depressing way of thinking about what should be put out in the world. Nevertheless, Alex makes a similar if not slightly softer point: “If they hated what I was posting so they muted me, I'd have to look at myself in the mirror and be like, 'who am I?'. But if it was for some other reason, like an ex didn't want to be reminded of me, then I wouldn't mind. It's their Instagram and their choice.”
What's clear is that a lot of us have got a secret muted list – people we don't want to see on our feeds every single day – whether that's because they're always on some blissful, sun-drenched holiday and it makes us jealous, or because they post so much it physically tires us out. Whatever reasons you have for muting someone is your prerogative, because it's your phone and your mind. But also, you're probably on someone else's muted list. You just might never know about it.