Shortly after we learn to count, we learn that there are friends, best friends, and second-best friends. I remember being pressured to name and rank mine, one by one, using my fingers as stand-ins for the people supposedly closest to me — the people my parents, or the alphabet, probably chose for me in the first place. I remember not feeling that strongly either way, providing an arbitrary list that I would then stick to, wholeheartedly, for the rest of my adolescent life. Little did I know that this exercise would prove useful when creating a “Close Friends” list on Instagram. As an adult.
For as long as I’ve been online, technology has asked me to rank my relationships. When I got a cell phone, the first thing I did was set my speed-dial contacts. In middle school, friends, best friends, and second-best friends became a long list of “buddies.” On Myspace, I was asked to narrow my “top” friends down to eight. Placement mattered. I learned that who your friends are, and how many of them you have, says something about who you are.
After AOL and Myspace came Facebook. Algorithms got sharper. Friends were “suggested.” To signify closeness, people “married” each other, or were in an “open relationship” (hehe), until an actual partner entered the picture. Birthdays took on a new significance. And then college happened, and Facebook friendships became exactly that. Happy anniversary, stranger!
In college, I learned what it actually means to have a friend, and be a good one, too. Thankfully, the four years I spent at a small liberal arts school coincided with a blissful four years when neither Facebook nor Instagram was cool, and I felt too old for Snapchat. I just existed as a friend in the world, which taught me how to exist as a person in the world, too.
Now, here I am: Back where I started. Who are my “close friends” on Instagram? How many should I have? And what will I share with them that I don’t share with my other followers? Instead of having to decide what my friends say about me, I’m now forced to look inward at the difference — and if there even is one — between my public and private selves.
Everyone has a different approach to Instagram’s “close friends” feature, which debuted in December 2018, and allows users to share 24-hour images and videos with a private, hand-picked audience, as opposed to everyone who follows them. Some treat it like an intimate group chat, adding only five to ten people. I did that when my grandmother died, because I didn’t know how else to share the news, and wanted people to ask me about it. Others use it as a way to communicate with those in their extended social sphere, minus their employer. It’s an easy way to send out a party flyer, for example. And finally — this is the most fun one — a select few use it as a gossip forum, sharing screen shots of personal texts, emails, and opinions that are too mean or controversial to tweet. I have one “close friend,” whom I don’t think I’ve actually ever met, who put up a social paywall of sorts: If you Venmo her $5, she’ll grant you access to the inner-workings of her mind and iPhone. She told me she’s made $200 so far. Scrolling through her stories feels scandalous and voyeuristic — sometimes I want to look away — which is funny, considering how much we choose to share elsewhere.
Despite its definition, the word “close” implies some degree of distance. It’s deceivingly intimate. By comparison, when you call someone your “best friend,” it’s a binding contract. You’re hitched for life, even if you become “ex-best friends,” and never speak again. Online, relationships in general are more fickle. Someone can label you a “close friend” without your consent — again, maybe you’ve never even met — and they can take that label away just as easily. Whatever “closeness” you may or may not have had can disappear with the tap of a finger.
This isn’t to say online friendships are less real, or less meaningful than IRL ones. Sometimes, I find myself talking to my “close friends,” or specifically, my “online friends,” more frequently than my best friend, whom I live with. The glowing green circle around “close friends” stories makes them seem special; more, well, friendly. I obsess over them. I feel anxious about them. But maintaining online relationships is a mechanical process, like flicking a switch. Nothing is earned, unless, of course, you’re paying for it. Closeness is performed as part of a public profile, not as an inextricable extension of self. When I log off, I technically leave my “close friends” behind.
The other day, I sat down to finally make a “close friends” list for myself. As with any any social invitation, decisions had to be made. Opening the door to one person could consequently open (or close) it to a handful of others. I started small, then went too big, and finally, returned to square one. In the end, I decided I didn’t want any “close friends” at all. The label felt redundant, and therefore meaningless and unnecessary. After a lifetime of grooming, ranking, and performing my relationships online, I wanted them to feel self-evident. If you are my close friend, you know who you are.