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Instagram Close Friends
Illustration Callum Abbott

Bitching, backstabbing, and boundaries redrawn on Instagram Close Friends

From posting mental health updates, bare-faced selfies, or debuting new relationships, the feature can strengthen our intimate circles – but is it also giving us trust issues?

If you’ve been added to someone’s ‘Close Friends’ on Instagram, you’re special. It means: ‘I like you so much that I’m going to give you extra insight into my daily life no one else gets’. Allowing a private circle of viewers to look at what you post, the feature functions as a private Instagrammer’s diary. The personal snapshots you’re reluctant to share with the wider world might involve debriefs after your weekly therapy sessions, teary in-the-moment selfies after a break-up, or blow-by-blow accounts of a first date.

But it’s not for everyone: when Instagram first rolled out the bright green circles in November 2018, it took a while to catch on for me. I’m generally quite a reserved person, so realistically, what I posted on my Close Friends wouldn’t reveal very much and wouldn’t be too different from what I posted on my main.

It’s also, famously, not for footballers’ wives and girlfriends: 2019 saw the infamous ‘Wagatha Christie’ episode play out, after Colleen Rooney noticed her information was being leaked to the press from her private Instagram account. As a test, Rooney posted three fake stories, including her basement flooding, visiting Mexico for a possible gender-selection pregnancy treatment, and being “in talks” to join BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. It turned out that fellow WAG Rebekah Vardy was allegedly the culprit, fuelling a whole debate about who you can and can’t trust online. Since Close Friends has no restrictions on taking screenshots, your content is very easily shareable.

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has changed the way we interact with one another socially. For some of us, adjustment to lockdown was coupled with the reduction of our friendship circles. For others, our networks have snowballed in light of being online more and creating meaningful bonds with our pixelated new friends. A recent survey by the University of Sydney highlighted this dichotomy. “(Some) would socialise with not as many people as before, but rather a very particular sub-group,” says Dr Marlee Bower, researcher of loneliness at the University of Sydney. “For people who have connections to draw on and are able to leverage their existing friendships online, they’re doing pretty well. In many instances, they’re even closer to their friends now.”

But is everyone on your Close Friends actually a “close friend” in the traditional sense of the word? Has the feature allowed us to reassess our friendship boundaries, how we communicate with our friends, and who we can trust? 25-year-old Kara was like me: initially apprehensive about using the feature. “For ages I didn’t use it as I didn’t see the point or benefit, plus I’d heard horror stories of it ruining friendships so I thought, if I don’t wanna share something with everyone, then I just won’t share it with anyone,” she tells Dazed.

Hannah, a 23-year-old content creator, has never used the feature because of privacy concerns. “I’m too scared,” she explains. “With (Close Friends stories), especially for someone who wears a hijab, if I wanna post something without my hijab on or an outfit that’s not that modest, you never really know if someone is screenshotting your pictures. I know it happened to someone and the pictures were leaked through Twitter. ​​So many people have had ‘scandals’ like that on Twitter and I guess it’s every hijabi’s worst fear,” she says. She adds that if she were ever to use the feature, there’s only one person she would trust enough to add onto the list: “What’s the point when I can just send (my picture) to them?”

“So many people have had ‘scandals’ like that... and I guess it’s every hijabi’s worst fear” – Hannah

A global study by Snapchat found that Britons have fewer “best friends” – 2.6 on average – than those in other countries. This could be attributed to the way we view and define our friendships, with the meaning of acquaintance, close friend, and best friend all being subjective.

21-year-old Laila’s Close Friends list fluctuates between five and eight people, who “are mostly close friends, but there’s that occasional person I add on there who I don’t know as well but know will not judge me.” But, she explains, if people view her stories and don’t interact with them, “I feel a bit off. Everyone who is on the list are people whose opinions I value, so when they’re constantly watching but not interacting, it feels like they’re there for the ‘tea’, instead of actually being there for me as a friend. Especially if I post very personal struggles and hardships.” Laila posts a mixture of “stupid memes and TikToks” relating to her life, stories discussing the media industry, and “Black London gossip”, as well as asking for advice on relationship and friend situations, and dramatically announcing any big life changes.

“I’ve used the feature at times to gain better clarity and different perspectives of situations I’m in. Ironically I occasionally have to remove the friend involved in such a situation. Instead of telling eight separate people about good or bad news, I’m able to broadcast on there and cut off that emotional exhaustion. They’re able to feel my emotions and be in it with me at once.”

How important is trust in developing new friendships or maintaining old ones? Bower says it is “essential. We generally make real friendships by sharing experiences and vulnerabilities.” But with putting your trust in others comes the risks involved with letting people in. While Laila’s experience has been wholly positive, she explains that she once did have a “Rebekah Vardy-like situation”, leading to a revelation about someone on her Close Friends she thought she could trust.

“​​I was extremely open with a work situation on my Close Friends story, (posting about) how it was mentally taxing and made me consider quitting the industry altogether. I didn’t want to let those feelings build up – I needed an outlet. I dramatically announced that I quit said job, which made all ten Close Friends reply to it. One person who I met up with later, not on my Close Friends, brought it up a few days later and I immediately clocked who they got it from. I was blindsided, because it was obvious how it was discussed – in the ‘juicy gossip’ kind of way, instead of a sympathetic way, considering the depressive state I was still in at the time.” Laila adds that this friend also works in the same industry she does; the film industry.

“Emotional intelligence was clearly not displayed in this situation which is sad and it's not caused a complete destruction in the friendship but there has been an ounce of trust and respect lost, which is a shame.”

With lockdown in the UK (seemingly) coming to an end, Kara says that she’s started to see the value in using it. “With life beginning to become busy again and people going back to work, the new friends that I’ve made or grown closer to in the past year due to lockdown spend less time in the group chat or on WhatsApp. Close Friends allows me to give them a window into my life, allowing them to keep up to date until we can meet up or find the time to catch up properly,” she said. “It means I don’t feel entitled to people’s time.” According to Bower and results from the Alone Together study, the initial fear and uncertainty around COVID led people to reach out to those they cared most about. Connecting online gave people an opportunity to connect (or even reconnect) to loved ones who lived far away, even internationally.

Kara adds that using the feature has even helped strengthen some of her new friendships and new friends – those she has either met in the past year or known for a while but grown closer to in the past year make up about 50 per cent of her Instagram Close Friends. She uses the feature in a variety of different ways. “If I’m having a bad mental health day, I’ll use it as a way of reaching out. I’ll post my man because men are embarrassing and you can only love them in private,” she jokes. “The cute moments I want to share but aren’t ready to share with everyone else because it’s still a new relationship. I’ll also post me on my no make-up days, or just share random updates about my day if I’ve had something mad happen to me.” 

20-year-old Louis is an avid user of the feature, and has about 25 people – all of which he knows IRL – on his Close Friends. “I now rarely use my actual story because I much prefer just having a small circle of people I trust, like, and aren’t trying to impress”. Like Kara, he also likes to post “mental health stuff” on his Close Friends, and will document his feelings as a way of putting less pressure on his friends to immediately respond or have all the solutions: “When I’ve been feeling shit over lockdown specifically, which has been the first time I’ve struggled with mental health, it’s been an outlet to talk about it in a non judgemental setting. I get a lot of people reaching out, especially people I wouldn't necessarily expect to – and that I probably wouldn't have come to directly!”

We still don’t know the long-term impact that repeated lockdowns are having on our social behaviours, Bower explains, as we keep “having to continually snap back in and out of social relationships and habits. It will be interesting to see how these experiences change over time.”

If you’re careful about who’s on your list, sharing your life and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to a select group of people you care about can be affirming – and can ultimately strengthen your friendships. “It’s a light, informal way to stay updated on each other’s lives,” Kara says. “Close Friends has really bridged that gap for me, which is something I didn’t expect.”