Maybe It's the Algorithm; Maybe You Need New Friends
Updated: Jan 4
There’s a hilariously relatable meme circulating around Instagram that reads: “Nobody supports you like a social media friend you’ve never met.”
Maybe you know the feeling: A friend suddenly stops liking and commenting on your posts. Where there was once cheerful affirmation and virtual high-fives, there’s a ghost of the way they once supported you. Then there’s the friend who only engages with your Stories, never showing you any love or support in a public way. Or, maybe you’ve got one who drops warm and gushing sentiments in response to everyone’s posts within your social circle…except yours.
Is it you? Is it them? Did you do something wrong? Are you just being paranoid? Will you seem lame for noticing and petty for asking them about it?
These are burning questions that many of us have held, at some point, about someone we know.
In our digital age, our relationships are more nuanced and tricky than ever. For example, friendships in 2005 played out far simpler than they do today. During the Myspace era, though roughly 27 million people were living out their lives online, there were no influencers, shares or swipe ups. No sponsored posts. No icky “follow for a follow” dynamics. "Cancel culture” wasn’t yet a thing.
There were fewer opportunities for comparison, and way fewer chances to take notice of someone’s ambivalence, lack of support, sketchy mixed signals or failure to wish you a “Happy Birthday.”
So, while, in our modern day of socializing digitally, we’re more connected than ever, with Instagram boasting about one billion users in 2022, we’ve also made space for faulty psychoanalysis–that kind that builds worlds of misunderstanding between us.
Our agendas are showing. But so are our insecurities.
In an era of assumptions, keep in mind that all engagements and views aren't the same.
In September 2020, I was in a freak accident that, while traumatizing, was far less tragic than it could’ve been. While pushing my 18 month-old daughter in her stroller through a mall parking lot that I’d frequented since childhood, I was run over–completely swallowed–by an unlicensed 17 year-old driver in a RAV4. She'd been glued to her cellphone, driving in the wrong direction.
In the midst of the impact, I tossed my daughter, who was tightly strapped in with her babydoll, away to safety. And, while the tire had crushed my shoulder, arm, hand and hair, rendering me a ripped, black and bloody mess, it had stopped an inch or two from my skull. None of my essential parts were harmed.
And yet! To add insult to injury–literally–the driver never lifted her gaze above the steering wheel. She never rolled down her window. Never glanced in the direction of my baby’s screams. Never uttered a tear or a word of apology.
In the days after, I took to my Instagram Stories to reveal my tightly bandaged flesh and to spotlight my fragile–yet immeasurably grateful–state of mind. For me, talking about it was therapeutic; it helped me purge the ugliness out of me so that the light could find me again. It helped manage the angry thoughts that wanted to multiply inside of my head.
After a few days, in firecracker fashion, I popped off–asking that anyone who’d followed my healing process, yet had failed to express an inkling of concern for at least my daughter, to please excuse themselves from my feed…and life.
And honestly? I meant it. Except, after some time passed, I remembered what I knew: the private reality of someone’s social media engagement is never how it appears from the outside. It was unfair and immature of me to assume that everyone who’d viewed my Stories but failed to type a message of support was worthy of my wrath. In reality, I was furious with people for doing something I’d probably done countless times, without realizing it.
Think about this: How often do you scroll while multitasking? Maybe you’re at work or bathing your child while skimming your feeds for some mindless leisure and, while you “see” the reels and images and quotes your friends shared, you process only a tiny percentage of them.
Views are deceiving. A view without a response doesn’t necessarily mean, “Hello there. I’m seated in a calm, quiet room, with no distractions, sipping a latte, reading every word of your post and taking a full, conscious moment to mentally process it, but am ultimately making the icy-hearted decision not to respond, just to be an asshole.”
How many times, in our information age of email, texting, video chats, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, messenger, and, if you’re single, a blur of dating apps, have you responded to someone inside of your mind, but failed to see that your thoughts materialized?
Going further, how many times have you made a mental sticky note to congratulate someone or pop a gift in the mail to them, only to have accumulated about five or ten more mental sticky notes on top of that one, before you wake up one morning a week later and think, “Oh, shit!”
With so much information being hurled at us, who isn't on brain overload?
A 2021 study showed that the average social media user spends roughly five and a half hours a day scrolling their feeds–glancing at their phone about 221 times from morning until bedtime. This means lots of opportunities to connect with those we care about, right?
Sure, except that the average human brain can’t possibly process and organize so much consumption.
Your brain’s reticular activating system, situated in your powerful brain stem, acts as a stubborn gatekeeper to all of the data that lands in your orbit–controlling, filtering and manipulating the parameters of what you see and perceive, based upon what it knows and has been programmed to prioritize. In other words, some images, reels or quotes might hit you like a flashing billboard in Times Square, while others float on by, without so much as a whisper.
We each live in our own universe of perceptions. And yours isn’t the same one as mine. Your sun shines brighter on different landscapes than mine does. And it’s also important to note that, if a person is struggling with their mental health, their sun might not be shining at all.
As for my accident, I’d created a post about the experience, unpacking my narrative surrounding the event. Then, I took to my Instagram Stories, dropping additional updates and answering questions I’d gotten about it. Which means my Stories offered little more than fragmented clues.
In other words, if someone hadn’t seen my post beforehand, either because they’d muted my content or because the algorithm was playing against us, and had only seen my Stories, they likely wouldn’t have had any idea that I was talking about something so scary and potentially life-threatening.
The bottom line? It might sting when a friend fails to support your new business or precious relationship milestone, or express their condolences when something awful happens to you. But it might not be that they deserve to be exiled.
When we make assumptions about each other, we’re telling ourselves stories that are filtered through our own lenses of disappointments, unmet expectations, paranoias, past rejections, indoctrinated judgments, etc. We might think they’re excluding us, but what if our assumptions are causing us to exclude ourselves?
You want to know what I dream about?
I hope that, in our digital age, where there are more opportunities than ever to communicate, we can find a way to stop ghosting and discarding people, without explanation, as though they’re a piece of trash. I hope we can slow down on making assumptions–casting light and fresh air to our feelings when we have an issue with someone who sees life differently than we do.
I dream of a world where we can be brave enough to calmly and maturely ask, “Hey, did I do something to upset you?” or “Hey, did you happen to see the new product I released? I’d love it if you’d check it out and tell me what you think because I worked hard on it and I value your opinion,” or “Hey, I care about you and our friendship, but I want to give light to something that’s nagging me,” without the risk of seeming needy or petty.
Also a world where we’re as fair and gracious with others as we want them to be with us. Where the benefit of the doubt isn’t an antiquated concept, but woven into every conversation. Where we understand that none of us show up as our most generous and thoughtful selves all of the time, in every situation.
One of my dearest girlfriends, Alicia, saw my posts and stories in the aftermath of my accident and was horrified. She burst into tears on the other side of her screen. But she’s also an entrepreneur, who was entrenched in her busy season, with a husband and three kids. So, while she swears to have had a dozen or more conversations with me in her mind about my accident, she said nothing to me about it until I finally brought it up in January, nearly four months later. She’d reached out to me to catch up on other things, but hadn’t mentioned that specifically.
What’s so beautiful about this story is that, when I brought it up to her in a gracious, loving way, without assumptions, giving her plenty of space to explain her end, it gave her the safety to respond without feeling judged or scolded.
We sometimes forget that we can ask questions or give critical feedback to our loved ones, without assaulting their character or intentions at all. A confrontation doesn’t have to be a showdown.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry…” she replied to me in text, going on to confess that she hadn’t realized how much I loved and prioritized her presence in my life. “I care about you so much, and I was so worried about you, but you have so many friends. I honestly didn’t think you needed me!”
It set the climate of our friendship to an even warmer, cozier temperature. It increased our intimacy and trust. It allowed me the opportunity to confirm that I do, in fact, adore her, and that she’ll never not be at the top of my personal V.I.P list of confidants and kindreds.
It made me feel so grateful that I’ve got a friend like her–someone who genuinely honors my perspectives and hears me out, while also being transparent with me. And, I believe, it cemented for her that I’m a friend who’ll never play games or avoid important conversations, but instead, will always be candid about how I feel. Because that's what it take to preserve a special bond like the one we have.
I want that kind of friendship so much more than I'll ever want a superficial one. And I’d also take a lovingly curious, respectful confrontation any day over someone who pretends that everything is fine when you can sense that it isn’t, and so you try to decode their subtext and analyze their disappearing acts, falling into a dizzying game of “Do they still like me…or nah?”
The reality is, we're each living in our own universe, oblivious to most of what we see, while being naturally pulled by the things that light us up...
Lastly, I think it's freeing to remember that none of us are entitled to someone’s exuberance. Just because someone isn’t especially jazzed about our new start-up or promotion doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t quality friend material.
Because, again, it’s nuanced. We each have different things that light us up or tug at our curiosities and interests. As humans, we drift and tumble into varying modes and patterns of give and take. And, I believe, part of being a friend is accepting that.
For example, I’ve got a few loved ones who’ve never bought my book. If I were to measure their loyalty by that single fact, it’d be easy to assume that they don’t support me. But that wouldn’t be accurate or fair at all. Not everyone is itching to get radical about their own empowerment, personal growth and mental health. Not everyone is game for a personal reinvention.
My book is specifically written for the person who’s had their heart or spirit broken, whether recently or in a way that haunts them from long ago. It’s for the person who’s in search for a sanity-sparing reset button, or is dying to realize a dream they’ve procrastinated for years, or is craving fresh ideas, possibilities and sparks that’ll breathe new life into them, most likely after a stretch of grief or struggle.
While I've got many loved ones who bought it anyway, whether or not it fancied their current interests, not every person has. And that's okay. Because, if I'm being honest, each of them have applauded my happiness and success in other ways.
What I’m saying is that, just because someone doesn’t root for us exactly as we’d like them to doesn’t mean they aren’t rooting for us at all. In fact, maybe they’re oblivious to the high-five we’re hoping to get from them.
So, if a friend's lack of support, whether on social media or beyond, is nagging you, you could always ask them about it.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Dr. Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, and author of Stop Self Sabotage, for an article in Oprah Daily about jealousy in friendships. As always, our conversation organically drifted to varying angles of relationship mishaps–because, ultimately, most blowups are caused by the absence of safe, open communication.
Dr. Ho said, “Sometimes our aggression and disappointment toward a friend comes from a place of insecurity. We think we need and deserve a specific kind of validation from them, but many times people don’t even know what we need from them. That’s why we have to tell them.”
There’ve probably been many ventures I’ve failed to acknowledge–ones that may’ve been mega-deals to those I care about. And it’s safe to say that none of those oversights were intentional. It was just me living in my own universe, following the fragrance of my own desires and inspirations, caught in a cyclone of a thousand distractions, checking off my to-do lists, trying to make fetch happen, seeking comfort for my own pain points, completely oblivious that someone might be on the other side of their screen, thinking, “She has said nothing about this! No congratulations at all! WTF, Lacey!”
Bottom line is: If you can relate, it’s certainly possible that you've got some snake-eyed lurkers in your social circle. Or, you may not. Toxic ambivalence and jealously among friends are real epidemics, without question, but so are misunderstandings and insecure assumptions.
Communication breakdowns happen to the most butt-hurt and selfish, sure, but also to the purest of hearts.
So, yeah, maybe your friend’s lack of support on social media means they’ve lost interest in doing life with you. Maybe they’re annoyed or put off or subconsciously envious about something they want that you’ve got. Then again, maybe it’s the algorithm. Maybe they didn’t see it. Maybe their brain failed to process it. Maybe they’re moving through something you know nothing about.
Or, maybe–just maybe–you might calmly, objectively, set your assumptions to the side and summon the courage to ask them about it.
©2022, Lacey Johnson, LJ Media, LLC
**No portion of this content is to be used without credit to its owner, and a link back to laceyjohnson.com.