Instagram is removing the “Following” tab, and that's not necessarily a good thing

Transparency: 0, your cheating boyfriend: 1.

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BuzzFeed confirmed earlier today that Instagram is killing the “Following” tab. The oft-forgotten section of the app currently sits next to users’ main notifications feed; showing what people they follow had been liking and commenting on, and who they had followed, from the past day or so. But after light testing on certain accounts, and apparently in the name of “simplicity”, head of product Vishal Shah says that the functionality will soon be obsolete.

“People didn’t always know that their activity is surfacing,” Shah told BuzzFeed. “So you have a case where it’s not serving the use case you built if for, but it’s also causing people to be surprised when their activity is showing up.”

There are obviously some pros to this decision. If you’re a closeted teen finding LGBT+ accounts a positive reprieve from your homophobic peers, someone trapped in a terrible relationship liking self-help Instagram accounts, or even being stalked by someone who has created a shell account to track your every move; this removal will come as a relief. People will be able to peruse Instagram without a paper trail of likes available to anyone who switches over. But there are also some significant downsides to the move.

For those who don’t know, the “Following” tab had another well-known use: a place to catch people doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Whether it was guys in monogamous relationships flirting with women in the comments or – as the BuzzFeed article notes – Catholic priests liking gay porn stars’ pictures, this under-used feature helped countless people uncover dodgy behaviour of spouses, partners, and friends. As one anonymous colleague in the New Statesman office said, “The ‘Following’ tab is the reason I broke up with someone.” Even I, personally, have caught friends’ boyfriends commenting on young girls’ Insta pics while alleging complete fidelity in their relationship.   

But beyond the dark truths that “Following” unearthed, the tab also did things to make Instagram a more enjoyable place. Seeing what your friends were liking and who they were following was a great way to get inadvertent recommendations for new food, travel, lifestyle, or meme accounts that you may otherwise never have come across. It was also an easy way for parents to keep a healthy eye on their kids without having full access to their account (Instagram users can be as young as 13) – making sure they weren’t liking anything dangerous while also getting a better understanding of their kids’ hobbies and interests.

Removing the “Following” tab is an obvious step away from transparency on Instagram; an app that, in the grand scheme of social media platforms, was seemingly trying to make itself better for its users’ mental health. As writer Nathan Ma argued on Twitter, “They know that they can control how advertisers and influencers use the platform more if there's less transparency about activity in the app, so they can continue nerfing accounts until they pay for promotions.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.