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Leaving university marked a turning point in my life. I walked away from three years of studying with a degree, a couple of extra stone, some friends for life – and many more Facebook friends I couldn’t wait to get rid of.
From the people I befriended in Fresher’s Week to those with whom the most profound conversation I had was in a nightclub toilet queue – moving away from the city we’d lived in felt like all the reason I needed to digitally delete them.
There have been far fewer obvious big moments since to prompt a social media cull, although I still regularly scroll through my timeline to be confronted with people I don’t recognise. Did they change their name by deed poll? Get married? Or just have a totally face-changing haircut?
It’s so easy to gather people into our digital circles – social media platforms rely on us wanting to make connections and stay on their sites longer. A follow here, a friend request there; all it takes is one click. But the next thing you know you’re reading strangers’ late-night political ramblings about Brexit and the scallop wars and wondering how on earth you ended up here.
Just because it made sense to follow at one point doesn’t mean you’re bound to them for life. Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says that we should consider our social media feeds as a “revolving door”.
“Sometimes people’s views change, perhaps they get a bit politically ranty, begin to humblebrag or you simply find you’re barely engaging with them at all,” she says. “There will be some that you need to continue to follow through loyalty of course – but otherwise, you’ll have the best experience by letting some people exit, while others enter.”
Every three months, Lucy* does a social media cull to help her stays on top of the people she is following. To make the process seamless, she has a set of rules. “I’ve had to spoken to you in the last three months whether that is through Facebook or face to face. We have to have interacted in some way; a like on a picture doesn’t count,” she says. No meaningful contact? Lucy hits delete.
Andrea is less worried about the regularity of contact and more about what she gets from the interaction. “We have to take control of what we see,” she explains. “If it [the post] generates a negative reaction in me – sometimes [it will be] snoozed; often culled.”
She isn’t the only one using the ‘unfollow’ feature on Facebook, PhD student Cloudy Carnegie from Cambridge says she is a “big fan” of the option. An unfollow rather than a delete means you declutter your timeline, without the awkwardness of people seeing that you’ve unfollowed them. (Which might be something to consider if you don’t want to upset your uncle but can’t bear his Facebook monologuing a moment more).
“Have we spoken to each other in the last three months?"”
So if you want to clean up your social media circles, how should you go about it? Hemmings says this isn’t just about deleting people you don’t always agree with, but also cultivating an enriching environment. “One of the points of social media is not just to follow people who you already know or whose interests you share, but others who will encourage you to challenge your own way of thinking or that you might learn from,” she says.
Look for people who bring positivity and interesting ideas into your timeline. One way to do this on Twitter, says Hemmings, is to keep an eye out for who people you admire are retweeting and interacting with.
And the key is not to do the sort as a one-off activity. Keep on top of the people you are following and be more ruthless about re-evaluating. Hemmings advises this be done as often as every three months. “It’s always a good idea to follow someone who resonates with you immediately,” she says.
The benefits of this not only mean that you’re able to see more of the stuff you like, but it can also be profoundly good for your wellbeing. Dr Pragya Agarwal says she started culling because she realised how much of a difference it made.
“I have become so conscious of my mental health and wellbeing and how it can be affected by the content I see in my feed.”