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Friend, follower or foe? The Covid-19 rise of social media secrets and ‘close friends’


by Sarah Finnan
25th Apr 2021
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Living through a global pandemic has had an immeasurable effect on society, with its impacts undoubtedly also extending to how we use social media, namely the 'close friends' feature on Instagram.

Recently, I read a piece on The Cut that described 2020 as being “the year of secrets” – an apt description, but one that I hadn’t really considered up until that point. Throughout the piece, the author (Anna Silman) pondered how the past 12 months have been clouded by a certain clandestine energy. 

Explaining just what she means by that, the article begins by speaking about how those who chose to flout COVID guidelines made increasing efforts to conceal their behaviour online. Wanting to have their cake but eat it too, their actions seemed to complement the common social media mentality of “pics or it didn’t happen” – except in this case, if there was no online proof, then they couldn’t be held accountable.

On the other end of the spectrum, Silman put those who found the whole experience liberating. “Freed from the judgemental gaze of friends, family and co-workers, they had an opportunity to pursue plans or acknowledge truths that might otherwise never have come to light”, she writes. Dubbing it a “new sacred privacy”, those that found themselves in this group also revelled in the secrecy of it all… just for different reasons.  

Which got me to thinking about how our usage of social media has changed during the pandemic. Namely, the “close friends” feature on Instagram.

What was once a feature reserved for photos we wouldn’t want anyone other than the select few to see, is now privy to content that we just don’t feel would be well received by a wider audience – content that is aesthetically pleasing and definitely fits the Instagram bill, but that could be incriminating in some way. Sound familiar? We’re all guilty of it to some degree and while some opt just not to post at all, others can’t help themselves and rather than miss an opportunity to ‘gram, they just filter who sees it. 

The things we choose to share, or not share, online require much more attention these days. With strict public health regulations still in place, judgement is rife and social media has plenty to say on the topic of other people’s escapades. Not everyone is following the rules, that much we know to be true. It was inevitable that somewhere along the way, wires would get crossed and people would become a little lax – nipping out for a coffee with their cousin here, going to their boyfriend’s house there. But it’s still jarring to see it all play out online.

In pre-Covid times, you may have used the close friends list to upload a screenshot of a text that guy you went on three dates with sent you. Easier than sending it into each of your individual WhatsApp groups, it was just personal enough to prevent you from sharing it with your whole bank of online followers.

Close friends content was rarely anything glamorous or cool, at least in my experience. More often than not, it consisted of the behind-the-scenes stuff that only people who actually knew you would get to see. Finding yourself on another person’s close friends list was, in some ways, an acknowledgement of your relationship. It indicated that you were part of an elite crew – one whose list of other members would never be revealed to you.

When you think about it, the feature has always encouraged some level of secrecy online. 

Granted it never consisted of anything that compromising, but knowing that not everyone had access to it fueled the notion that anything with the giveaway green star in the corner was to be kept hush-hush. Trying to talk about something that was restricted to just close friends, was like trying to discuss surprise birthday party plans in front of the guest of honour – the ever-present threat that you’d blow it, simmering just below the surface. 

But now, the tables have turned. Close friends content is not necessarily an indicator of your closeness anymore but rather a way for us to create an echo chamber of people who support how we live our lives in the midst of a global pandemic. It feels like we’re much more aware of the eyes that see our antics play out online and so we edit and restrict the list until it’s filtered to within an inch of its life…. not unlike the many picture-perfect selfies that pervade our feeds. 

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