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The Life-Changing Magic of Unfollowing Almost Everybody

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In a last-ditch effort to enjoy my social media experience again, I unfollowed 90% of my Twitter feed—and I think it worked.

When I check in now, in just a few minutes I catch up on everything said by the ninety or so people I follow. I have time to consider what they say. I don’t leave upset.

It’s similar to how Twitter felt when I joined. In 2009, it really seemed to connect you to the pulse of the online world. That sounds like satire now but it really felt like that. The original concept was very modest—a tweet was only supposed to be the answer to the question “What are you doing?”

The banality of it was part of the fun. Ah, you’re working on a fantasy novel at Starbucks. Neat. I just read a blog post about stain removal methods, which you might enjoy. Here it is.

It was a novel way for often-online people (which was not yet most people) to check in on each other throughout the day. You could get little glimpses of many lives happening alongside yours. You could choose which lives to keep open windows on, and each person could choose what to display in their window.

It was mostly a pleasant and interesting—if not exactly focused—experience. Different people, living different but relatable lives, updating each other on their little corner of time and space. I imagined these tiny messages being delivered by little blue birds landing on windowsills.

The whole thing felt harmless and cute. Nobody was trying to get people fired, or break the internet, or explain campus political correctness in a thirty-tweet diatribe.   

People in important positions, such as CEOs and presidents, did not tweet. The idea of a president tweeting, no matter who it was, would embarrass everyone. When they tried, it felt something like your grandpa showing up to a house party with sunglasses and a skateboard, assuming he would blend in.

Today, the signup page at Twitter doesn’t say “What are you doing right now?” as it did in 2009. It says, “See what’s happening in the world right now,” implying that your Twitter stream, in all its chaos and reactivity, somehow represents the world’s current state.

In reality, what we see in our Twitter streams can’t be “what’s happening in the world,” because each of us is seeing something different.

If you only follow news organizations, the world is violent and on the verge of collapse. If you only follow activists, the world is hateful and unjust. If you only follow The Onion, the world is a joke. If you only follow your grandmother, the world is kind and sweet.

Of course, if like most people you follow hundreds or thousands of accounts, no matter which accounts those are, the world is insane.

Luckily we can still dispel the illusion. If you’re a user of Twitter, and you find yourself perturbed by what seems to be an increasingly insane world, a drastic purge can restore a sense of sanity and connection.

How to make Twitter (and seemingly the world) sane again

Here’s what I did anyway. I unfollowed everybody except accounts who produce tweets I almost always want to see.

This is not the same as following people and businesses you like. That was a big discovery for me: simply liking someone or something isn’t a good reason to follow them on Twitter.

I like the author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I don’t want to think about moral psychology or campus political correctness every time I do my social media rounds.

I like a local food truck called Red Ember. I do not need to think “Should I go get a pizza?” several times a day.

I know and love many personal finance bloggers. I’m not interested in thinking about my finances every time I go online.

When you start going by whose tweets you like reading, as opposed to who you like for other reasons, you will probably end up following way fewer people.

Mostly, I stuck with:

  • People I know in real life (who aren’t in the habit of tweeting about horrible news events they don’t plan to do anything about)
  • Local events in my city
  • Local shops and businesses I would like to visit more
  • Certain kinds of humor
  • Certain kinds of discussion about certain topics

This kind of curation is definitely not what Twitter wants you to do, so you’ll have to turn to a third party app to efficiently cull your feed. I used Tokimeiki Unfollow, which cleverly allows you to Marie-Kondo-ize your feed, asking yourself if each account still “sparks joy.”

You’ll know what you feel about a given account when you see its name and avatar. You’ll feel a lot of aversion and indifference, and small moments of joy. When in doubt, unfollow. I was ruthless and regret nothing. It took ten minutes.

Of course, in 2019, unfollowing is a political act, and some people will assume that because you unfollowed them you no longer like them. We can probably just let those little misunderstandings happen, see which relationships survive, and assume they are the important ones.

In fact, if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance I have unfollowed you. If you feel offended, it may be an appropriate moment to re-evaluate your online life. And I don’t mean that flippantly. I am doing this re-evaluation now, and this is part of that.

Following a person, after all, isn’t exactly a major expression of interest in what they have to say. In fact it’s the smallest gesture of interest possible, essentially bookmarking a person for later, in case we want to engage with their real work or real self someday.

No matter what we think of each other, maybe it isn’t at all important that I follow you, or that you follow me. We are both elsewhere, in more complete forms. Let’s find each other there.

***

Photo by John Duncan

{ 44 Comments }

Elizabeth April 8, 2019 at 9:34 pm

I did this same thing about two weeks ago with Instagram! Not sure about Twitter, but Instagram has a mute option so there’s even less friction in Marie Kondo’ing. Now checking Instagram feels less like a bottomless pit. I think it was in the book The Attention Merchants that Tim Wu said that as addictive as TV can be, there are still stopping points – shows start and end, forcing you to pause and decide if you want to keep going. Apps are (very intentionally) missing any semblance of this, so having a small amount of people I follow online creates a stopping point. Whether or not I actually close the app is a different story…

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:19 am

Relative to Twitter, I’ve been very careful about my instagram feed, partly because it didn’t used to have a mute option. I knew that if I followed and then unfollowed people might get mad (and I tend to know the people I follow in real life). It could use a culling though, now that I’m not so worried about people reacting badly.

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Michael April 8, 2019 at 10:21 pm

David

I am a professional seafarer, and apt to swear. So here goes.

***dammit, David, another post where you have got it so ****ing right. I unfollow curated lives. I do follow the lives And accounts I like, like yours. Your posts bring delight, sanity and wonderful reflection into my own life. I feel we could have a drink together one day and have a great convo and then go on with our lives being enriched for the experience.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:21 am

Thanks Michael. Part of this process of drifting away from social media involves a renewed appreciation for chatting in person with someone. Social media doesn’t even come close.

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Michelle April 9, 2019 at 1:52 am

Funny the different perspectives in life. I love the online community and being able to connect with people that would never have happened otherwise, sharing thoughts and real insights. Following sites because they make me think, consider differently. Twitter though, I’ve just never really understood the point of filling your mind with such empty seeming words. So whilst I can’t help but agree entirely it’s a good thing you’ve done I still think 90 people sounds like a hell of a lot to have!! Good start ;-)

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:27 am

To be honest I don’t fully get it either, at least the way some seem to. For me, the good parts of Twitter are very specific — the humor of certain people, live back-and-forth during sports events, certain accounts that post interesting links… but as an overall “community” I don’t really get it either after all this time.

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Ron April 9, 2019 at 2:29 am

The technique I use to curate – which I agree is essential – is to create private lists on Twitter. I have two lists for the feeds I value in the two subject areas I am primarily interested in, containing about 20 people each. I typically read all their posts each day and gain value therefrom. Then I have several lists for politics, each at a different level of my interest in the source, which I look at when I want to check in on some big news event or just indulge my political junkyism. Other people I follow are not on any of my lists, and I can review them all occasionally by going to my home page. This way I don’t have to unfollow others who are following me (I don’t always follow back, but if they are decent people and reasonably interesting, it seems like a good practice). This system works well for me. Can’t believe I went as long as I did before starting this practice of creating lists. Makes a huge difference.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:30 am

I have tried lists in the past but never really used them. I always end up browsing my default feed. Maybe it’s time to try them again. Part of my resistance is that it seems like I would be putting in time in an effort to spend more time on Twitter, and I think part of me wants it to be worth a two-minute diversion but not be too engaging. What a weird relationship I have to this platform :)

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Elisa Winter April 9, 2019 at 5:18 am

I left all of it (social media) behind in December. It’s remarkable how much I don’t need to know, or even lightly touch upon. It’s taken 4 months not to miss anything about social media. Anything at all. I am calmer, saner, happier.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:32 am

I’m sure I would have done this years ago, but being a blogger I feel like I need to keep one toe in the pool. I suppose there are ways to quit actively using it while still sending my articles out to people who follow me.

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Andrea April 9, 2019 at 6:06 am

Thanks for this. Just unfollowed 85 accounts on Instagram! I consider it a first round of the purge.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:32 am

Nice! Does your stream seem better so far?

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Rocky April 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

What is the sound of one twit tweeting??

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:33 am

Just one?

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Steve Brady April 9, 2019 at 7:09 am

I only follow about 50 people and I have never had the issues others have had with twitter. So I totally agree with you- even if you did unfollow me.
Honestly though, I very rarely tweet. I am more of a lurker on social media.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:36 am

The number makes a tremendous difference to the experience. When I followed 900 people, I really had a sense that the world was going nuts, even while I wasn’t on Twitter.

I did unfollow a lot of lurkers, people who haven’t tweeted in a while, or mostly retweet.

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Amanda April 9, 2019 at 8:49 am

Having parted ways with all social media, I have cleared so much mental space and have way less content being introduced to my conscious and subconscious, there is a noticeable difference in my life. It’s a cleaner process when trying to make sense of dreams, thoughts, and feelings. Best of all, I get to focus on the world happening right in front of me. The people, community, problems, solutions, and everything in between. Your post and some of the comments lead me to believe strategies can be implemented to aid in healthy consumption of social media. For me and likely many others, abstinence seems to work best.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:40 am

I think I’m on the way there eventually. When I read Cal Newport’s new book I’ll probably try full abstinence for a while.

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Drew April 9, 2019 at 8:57 am

I love the sanity of the article. Every sentence is pragmatic truth. Not only is following someone mild interest, it is in a lot of cases an act of trying to get someone’s interest in you. Or worse, a fear they won’t be interested in you if you don’t follow.

Why are we encouraged to follow more and more people and businesses? Because the more people we follow the more we log in (daily active user) and the more we scroll (ad revenue). In that sense it’s like we are in the Matrix. We are the life blood of these companies and they suck our energy out of us by the apps addiction, irritation, and inflammation. It’s time to get the joy back or not use at all.

I’m off to purge all my accounts, not just twitter. Greet post!

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:43 am

We have definitely been encouraged by the platforms themselves to follow more and more people, because it’s better for their bottom line.

But I’m starting to wonder if this is backfiring. As more of us are following more people, we’re becoming more and more annoyed by our social media experience. Social media is now hated in a way not even TV was. Reminiscing about how FB and Twitter felt to use ten years ago was quite revealing — they used to be beloved.

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Victoria April 9, 2019 at 9:05 am

What a great post. I recently deleted both Facebook and Instagram off my phone and completely deleted my Twitter account. Feels pretty darn good right now. I like your idea of sorting through who I follow (if I ever pick the apps up again) and calming down my feed. Thanks for another well thought post.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:45 am

Good for you. I took FB off my phone years ago but Twitter crept back in. I think an abstinence experiment is in the works for me.

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Erin April 9, 2019 at 9:21 am

There is so much truth here!! I went through the same process six years ago when I realized that the social media was adding minimal value to my life. Similar to cleaning out one’s closet, there will inevitably be some emotional back-and-forth (I know we haven’t spoken in ages, but what if…?) but cleaning out the feed removes the novelty, quiets the noise and, frankly, makes social media extremely boring.

Prior to unfollowing people, I had unfollowed almost all brands; my ads went from world travel-themed to baby accessories, and I quickly wanted nothing to do with it. If anyone is intimidating by unfollowing people, I’d recommend brands for the first purge. Coming from someone who formerly spent way too much time online, it works.

Within a few weeks, the strong urge to “stay connected” disappeared and I deleted all social media. People often express fear about losing touch. When I posted my final “I’m leaving social media, here’s my email/number,” no one–not even those I thought I was close to–responded. I have far fewer friends now than six years ago and have no idea what most people are up to; however, I have several very close friends who I speak to weekly, feel more connected than I ever have before and have the free time and mental space to pursue hobbies and real-world relationships. It is the best gift I’ve ever given myself.

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:53 am

Thanks for this comment. I think you’ve touched on a bigger fear here, which is that many of our relationships don’t really exist anymore, or at least aren’t strong enough to survive the absence of social media. Maybe that’s a good thing — I’m not sure if this is a universal experience but because we “touch base” so much more easily, we sit down and chat so much less. This trend goes beyond social media and affects people who don’t even use the platforms anymore, simply because it’s increasingly uncommon for a person to call another person out of the blue. I think we’re really feeling the isolation brought on by the quick, low-effort, low-risk communication style of social media.

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Joshua Hogan April 9, 2019 at 9:31 am

Great post! I did the same thing with my facebook feed recently, and it does make the experience much more pleasurable. I mostly only follow people I actually know who don’t live near me and with whom I have little chance of face-to-face interaction (oh…and I have to want to read their posts).

P.S. I still follow your page :).

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David Cain April 9, 2019 at 9:57 am

That’s great. Facebook seems to be its own animal… I find that even among people I really want to hear from, almost nobody posts anything anymore about their own lives. It’s like the status update is dead, it’s all just links and videos and impersonal stuff. The reason I haven’t quit is because I’m worried I’ll miss invitations to events that only happen on Facebook. The sad part is I know that’s true!

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Shane MCLEAN April 9, 2019 at 10:03 am

It took me 45 min but I cut over 600 accounts. I’m tired but i feel better now.

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Teresa Young April 9, 2019 at 10:20 am

I never got too involved in social media. I think it’s because I was stuck with one of the early cell phones in a previous long term computer job. It felt like a leash.
So when smartphones made social media so ‘alluring’, I wasn’t one of those people that really found it much of a draw. It’s still using your phone, and for fun! Why? I keep turning it off whenever I’ve used it….

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Jeff April 9, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Another enjoyable post. I think the ramifications extend beyond Twitter and social media. Many things start out as being truly fun and rewarding; but develop into something more obsessive or unhealthy. Pokemon-Go & FORTNITE in video games, binge watching TV, accumulating wealth, smoking, drinking … etc. We are driven to make ourselves happier, but often fail to see the diminishing returns we are getting from the activity. Recalibrating and sometimes outright quitting often yields the best results.

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David Cain April 11, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Agreed. I think the key issue is that all of these things have become hyper-accessible. We barely have to move our thumbs to entertain ourselves now, so that means it doesn’t have to be very rewarding for us to go back to it again and again.

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Pat Stoltey April 9, 2019 at 3:41 pm

I did something similar on Facebook–a brutal attack of unfriending, making more of my non-author page info private, and being pretty darned careful who I friend and/or follow going forward. Twitter was easier to prune because I’d been more careful there, but I’m changing the way I view tweets by creating more lists.

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Irrlivre April 9, 2019 at 3:49 pm

I never followed you David, are you offended? ;) :p
just kidding :D
I’ve done something similar with the blue social network.
Great definitions of the uses of the tweets!
Cheers!

{ Reply }

Maureen April 9, 2019 at 6:54 pm

I did something similar about a year ago on Facebook. I didn’t want to give it up completely because there are several groups – my church, my workout buddies, my family Facebook group, etc – that I wanted to keep connected to. I didn’t want to unfriend anybody I just wanted to reduce my feed. So what I did was unfollow every single person Until I had no feed at all. I didn’t unfriend them, just unfollowed. Then I added back the few groups that I wanted in my feed. I’ve done something similar in Twitter and it’s a much nicer experience. And my Instagram was already just a happier feed of beautiful food, design, etc. so I go to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for different experiences but I spend much less time on any one of them.

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Andrew Moylan April 9, 2019 at 8:29 pm

A couple of years ago I read your article about not following the news so closely. At the time I had a very busy Feedly stream of followed blogs, incuding yours, that I often could not keep up with. Along with reading the news and some other sources like reddit and twitter.

A short time after reading your article, I deleted Feedly app and my News app and Twitter, effectively declaring “follow bankruptcy”.

I then decided which things I truly wanted to read.
I settled on exactly three things and they are the only things I have checked on a regular basis since then.
1. Your blog, which I subscribed to by email.
2. A favourite blog on a niche topic.
3. One specific niche subreddit. I stopped visiting reddit.com apart from that subreddit.

It is amazing to log in to Feedly now and see thousands upon thousands of unread items that simply passed me by, no harm done …

{ Reply }

bipin April 10, 2019 at 12:05 am

Very well written. A few bits like this ‘We are both elsewhere, in more complete forms. Let’s find each other there’ is a sparkling truth and something everyone should ponder about once a while. Your musings touch the heart and wake me up. Please keep writing. Much thanks :)

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Beth April 10, 2019 at 7:01 am

Wowza!!! I recently cleaned up my all of my social media accounts, as well as my blog subscriptions. It truly does feel like life-changing magic! The pull of FOMO was strong, but now that I’ve done it, I couldn’t even tell you who I’ve unfollowed/unsubscribed.

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Brian April 10, 2019 at 9:48 am

Careful. This road leads back to RSS and private forums. (A good thing, but relatively reclusive.)

There appears to be something of a digital renaissance beginning, where we’re withdrawing from “more” in pursuit of “better”. I would much rather see what others are up to on their own sites, in the context of their other thoughts, than skim bits and pieces between ads on a corporate platform.

Take the power back. The revolution will not be televised.

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David Cain April 11, 2019 at 3:10 pm

I am also anticipating a digital renaissance. Social media is so huge in so many of our lives and we’re increasingly displeased with our experience of it.

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Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 April 10, 2019 at 3:24 pm

I have given up Facebook for Lent on three occasions (this year is the third time). This is the first time I don’t miss it and dread going back. I have kept Instagram and Twitter (but choose not to use Twitter unless I want to crowdsource reactions to things like major ongoing news events[eg, Ferguson] or pop culture events[eg, Oscars, which I haven’t watched in a couple of years now]). I used to enjoy Instagram. I’m annoyed that it’s basically one solid ad. I also dislike that many blogs have essentially become ads (present company most certainly excluded). Everything feels monetized and I GET IT, but I RESENT IT.

I love connecting with people. I’m really annoyed the platforms are working so hard to make that SO HARD.

Two years ago (after the election and while pregnant with my third), I unfollowed EVERYONE on FB for Lent. It was glorious. I have NO idea why I started following everyone again.

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Cathy Johnson (Kate) April 11, 2019 at 2:04 pm

I have never been on Twitter, but I think the same can apply to Facebook and other platforms. I have “unfollowed” a LOT of people for a variety of reasons, and my life is a lot simpler and more productive. Some of these people I dearly love in real life but I can’t watch them destroy themselves with anger and fear, and discovered that there ws unfortunately not a thing I could do about it. They chose their path, their response. Some people, on FB anyway, you accept a friend request and you are automatically following them. I’ve learned to deal with that, as well. As fellow writer Annie Dillard said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

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Dianne April 11, 2019 at 2:41 pm

I follow a few people on facebook that I know in person, on Twitter a few who are strangers/bands etc. A friend recently told me I need to be on Instagram and I thought Oh no not something else! What with the few things I do engage with online and my own blog that is enough. For some it is a job I know but not for me, not just sharing for the sake of it. Thought provoking piece as ever David. Thank you.

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Kevin April 12, 2019 at 10:21 am

For FB, I took a page (literally) from Cal Newport, and purged what I deemed to be “weak ties.” If it was someone I hadn’t interacted with in years, someone I had never met in real life- with a few exceptions-, or someone who generally just clogged my feed with sh*t posts, then off they went. I also try to only get on there once a day, usually while I’m eating breakfast. This is counter to Newport’s advice, but I work super early, and don’t want to wake anyone else up with music or podcasts. I also intentionally look at 4 pages/groups, and then am out. It has made a massive difference.

I just culled my Twitter feed by about ~300 this morning. It’s a start.

For Instagram, I’ve always tried to be intentional about who/want I follow there, so that was easier for me. My issue there is making sure I try to only go on at set times for a set amount.

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Mattheus April 18, 2019 at 10:21 am

This works for Facebook, too. Unfollow everyone (except possibly family or close friends) and “unlike” everything and see the magic. Facebook used to be wonderful in the early years, connecting you with friends and sharing photos and such – then it adopted a News feed and everything went to hell.

Unfollowing everyone and everything breaks the News feed. It’s funny to watch it struggle (for the first few times). After the Maoist purge, the only things it shows are: your last status (ok), People you May Know (fine..), an ad, your penultimate status (was it really 10 days ago I posted that?), maybe an attempt to get your to connect your Contacts, and then.. blank. Pure white. The wheel at the bottom scrolls and scrolls, struggling to produce new content for you, but nothing exists. It scrolls in vain. Seeing an unceremonious “end” of the News feed like that jolts you out of the trance of endlessly scrolling and reminds you “Oh yeah, I have a life, and things to be doing!”

Best part of it, you still keep your account, you still get tagged in photos, you still can visit profiles, you still get event invitations, you still get to be a status-content producer and interact with people – you’re just no longer a consumer. You get to return to old Facebook before the toxic News feed ruined a great platform for online connection.

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tallgirl1204 April 18, 2019 at 1:00 pm

I only follow 27 people on Twitter, but I just cut it to 22. I took out news, which only hurts my feelings. I kept fashion, left-wing faith leaders, a couple of opinionators and professional runners (of whom there are a lot in our town and twitter is like their fan club). And one former president. There will still be plenty of controversy, but filtered through people whose opinions and/or character I respect, and hopefully including inspiration to stay healthy, keep the faith and look (reasonably) good. Thanks for the idea!

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