get over it

The Joy of Unfollowing

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This week, after married writing duo Bill and Emma Keller took turns critiquing a cancer patient’s social-media presence, the point-by-point Keller takedowns were swift and thorough. (The Kellers had been misleading and callous at best, inaccurate and ethically dubious at worst.) With the task of Keller evisceration completed by others, I would like to discuss a more foundational flaw in the duo’s logic: the notion that there is something inherently unvirtuous about sharing information online.

Bill, writing in the Times, recoiled at Lisa Bonchek Adams’s “decision to live her cancer onstage,” advocating instead the virtues of stoicism. Emma, in a now-rescinded Guardian column, likened Lisa’s tweets to “funeral selfies,” and then fell into a series of rhetorical questions: “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI?”

In the age of social media, when cell phones come with camera lenses optimized for selfies, that last question gets asked regularly. So I am going to answer it, once and for all: No. There is no such thing as TMI on the Internet. We are living in a post-TMI age, and everyone needs to deal with it. Preferably by using the “unfollow” button.

There is such a thing as too much information for you. There is such a thing as information the speaker will later regret. But if an audience is willingly and pleasurably consuming the information, then by definition, that is the right amount of information for them. Assuming the information in question is yours to share — your life, your ideas, your stories, your pictures, your theories about elf genealogy in Lord of the Rings — you cannot share too much of it. There are no captive audiences on the Internet. Whereas discussing your sex life at the Thanksgiving dinner table may be TMI for Grandma, discussing your sex life online does not necessitate Grandma’s participation. If you follow someone on Twitter and you find that her tweets are too much for you, then you may unfollow her. If you continually recoil at TMI, it’s because you lack the willpower to stop consuming (or foresight to avoid) the information in question. That’s your fault.

Modern media consumption — particularly digital media consumption — is personalized. This is sometimes to our detriment; it is very easy to surround yourself with the voices of only those who agree with you. As consumers of social media, we are all the programmers of our own personal line-ups, featuring a hand-selected set of soap operas, news sources, and other amusements. If a particular soap opera becomes boring, you click “unfollow” — or maybe you hate it so much that you block it. You can download browser extensions that will turn words you do not want to see into a big black bars, or prevent you from loading web pages that contain material that offends. For instance, if I never want to see or think about Bill or Emma Keller, I could install a content filter like Blocksi and set it to block or limit the amount of time I spend on web pages where the term Keller appears. Or I could set it simply to warn me about incoming Kellers, so that I can summon a third party to preview the material for me.

(I wouldn’t do that. I enjoy articles about and by Kellers.)

I have a Facebook friend who is an amateur photographer. He regularly posts pictures of busty models posing in flammable-looking lingerie, often including winking commentary on their anatomy. Owing to various social entanglements, I am unable to de-friend this man. So I clicked the drop-down menu on the upper-right corner of one of his posts and selected “Unfollow.” In the same menu, there is an option that says, “I don’t want to see this.” It brings up a questionnaire that helps customize your Facebook feed based on assessments like, “It’s annoying,” “I don’t care about posts from this person,” and “It’s trying to get me to like something.” (An odd complaint, given that “trying to get me to like something” is central to Facebook, capitalism, human socialization, and mating rituals necessary for species-wide survival. It’s pretty universal.) If you have a low threshold for “annoying,” you’re in luck: Teams of brilliant people are working, as we speak, in the headquarters of America’s most powerful corporations to fine-tune the algorithms that shield you from stuff you find “annoying.”

Unfollowing is a joy. Everyone should try it. Unfollow someone today on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram — or you can even do it in your e-mail account! Create a mail rule that automatically deletes (or filters and sets aside) missives you know you will hate. Like the disappearance of a canker sore, once the irritation is gone, you will never think about it again, unless you go out of your way to reminisce about that one great time you tongued at a canker sore, and it hurt a little, but you kind of liked it.

Rule 34 of the Internet states, “If something exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” Embedded in this joking wisdom is a profound statement about taste. If one person likes something enough to imagine, desire, or create it, then somewhere in this wide world of ours, another person feels the same way. In the age of micro-audience — when everyone is famous not for fifteen minutes, but to fifteen people — there is a consumer for everything. No exceptions. Even if the audience is merely the creator himself, gazing at his own selfies for hours on end like Narcissus falling into a pool of glowing computer screen — if he is @MrPimpGoodGame — that is still an acceptable use of the Internet. Embarrassing, perhaps. Awkward, alienating, depressing, enlightening, inspiring, boring — any emotional reaction is possible. But no self-expression on the Internet can be categorically too much, because to someone, that artifact of human existence is just right.

Lisa Bonchek Adams is doing more than posting selfies, of course. She is educating, socializing, and communicating with her 11,400 Twitter followers as she goes about her daily life — a life that happens to include metastatic cancer. It is worth noting, though, that before L’Affair Keller, she only had 7,000 followers. When Emma Keller asked whether Adams’s tweets were “TMI,” some 4,400 people responded, No.

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The Joy of Unfollowing