Among Instagram's 800 million users, the unveiling of yesterday's "mute" feature seemed like cause for a royal celebration of its own. The responses to the app's new silence-your-annoying-friends tool ranged from calm relief to ecstatic joy, with some users calling on imagery from the royal wedding — specifically, the look on Meghan Markle's face as Prince Harry lifted her veil — to express their unbridled happiness.
While most Instagram updates result in some amount of online chatter, the number of responses to mute was noteworthy, even by Instagram's standards. This says less about the power of Instagram, and far more about the complicated social dynamics that have become tied up in using the app and the ways it has redefined our personal relationships IRL.
Depending who you talk to, users have different plans for the kinds of accounts they'll silence.
"I have some friends who post so much, over and over," one 20-year-old female student, who plans to mute chronic selfie-posting accounts, told Refinery29. "I specifically remember seeing posts by certain people and they were all beginning to look the same and I kept thinking haven’t I already seen this?"
For lifestyle blogger Vix Meldrew, 31, it's a way to silence other bloggers without the repercussions of unfollowing them:
"As a blogger, I’ve amassed follows for hundreds of other bloggers over the years, [including] ones who started out posting mirror selfies of their Primark outfits but who now solely use their grid to pretend to have a life they don’t have; who book trips to places just for one photo for the 'gram; who order six plates of food just to throw it away and not eat it, solely for their grid. These people, who invest so much time and energy into their grids, who are always devastated that anyone would unfollow or dare not to like a picture of theirs, well I can mute them and avoid any drama."
That "drama" is not unique to the influencer community. It's something anyone who has ever been asked did you see my post? or why didn't you like my vacation photos? can relate to. As social media has become a bigger part of our lives, the expectation is not just that we'll stay up to date on what our tier one friends — the ones we actually text with on a regular basis and see in person — are up to, but also the "friends" in tiers two, three, and four. (Tier four is made up of the people you follow, but need more than two minutes to remember how you know them or why you follow them in the first place.)
This is likely why Mute is so powerful: Beyond just avoiding the perfect succulent-and-smoothie posts we find annoying, it helps us organise our friendships online. Facebook, Instagram, and every other social media platform might allow us to connect with thousands of people, but studies suggest that human beings can, at most, maintain stable relationships with just 150 of them.
"In real life, we have an ordered structure to our friendships in which we devote the most time to a small number of core friends — 40% of our time to the five people closest to us, 60% to the 15 closest," Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary psychologist whose work informed the 150 friends statistic, also known as Dunbar's Number, told Refinery29.
Mute lets us manage "the tsunami of posts that otherwise threaten to overwhelm us," Dunbar said. "Time is primarily our limiting factor in making and maintaining friendships, [on a] one in, one out basis. On Facebook and other media, we seem to maintain both the same numbers and the same frequencies of interaction, so if this gets overloaded with people from the wrong circle it interferes with our 'carefully' planned social schedules."
The reality is that there aren't enough moments in the day to see what everyone's doing, nor do we want to keep up with certain personalities who are bearable in person, but unbearable online. "Mute" gives users permission to shush those people in the politest, least intrusive way possible. Depending on who you mute, you might even find your daily wellbeing is impacted.
"I feel like it's going to be good for my mental health to tune out other peoples' successes for a while," one 32-year-old artist, who plans to mute friends in her industry, said. "I'm happy for my friends who are achieving great things, but Instagram makes it too easy to start getting bitter about why that's not me! I'm looking forward to living in a self-imposed creative bubble for a little while."