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Understanding Your Social Media Lurker

The friend who looks at every single one of your posts but struggles to engage in person.

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Mengxin Li
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I won’t be sharing this story on social media, as I often do with the stories I write. Because she’ll see it. She sees everything I post. From Instagram stories about my adventure mowing the lawn to random pics of my kid on “Crazy Hair Day,” she is there, every time I share.

Yet we haven’t had a substantive conversation in months. Jessica (name has been changed to protect the awkward) is my Social Media Lurker, aka a friend who looks at every single one of my social posts but struggles to engage in person.

Let me be clear: I have no ambitions of “influencing” anyone. Unlike the former Bachelor contestants of the world, I am an Instagram sharer of meager following. I have about 250 followers — mostly friends and family, and I post on average about three to five Instagram stories a day for this small, carefully approved audience.

For me, sharing random Instagram stories is fun, if not a little bit stupid, so why not do it? Because — poof! — they’re gone from the face of the earth in 24 hours and you get to do it all over again tomorrow. My posts are not exciting. Why people follow me is anybody’s guess, as I don’t think I’m the train wreck from which you can’t turn away. I’m not the person constantly sharing selfies (because, ugh, who can ever find the right angle?). You will never catch me divulging TMI.

A few years ago, Jessica and I hung out quite a bit. We had regular playdates and our families would occasionally get together for dinner, things of that nature. Until — I’d say about a year ago — I noticed Jessica and I started hanging out less. It wasn’t through any fault of our own. We got busy and our kids were in different classes. As fate would have it, they found other friends.

But even though we weren’t texting as much as we used to, Jessica was still there. The first viewer in all of my Instagram stories. She was there when I got my hair cut; when our fam sang happy birthday to my niece; when I created a dumb boomerang of my cat smacking my dog. Thwap! I began to notice that she’d sometimes look at my stories twice with a separate Insta account. That’s when an eyebrow raised.

It didn’t really bother me until I went on a pretty amazing trip this summer — which Jessica witnessed firsthand, every day — and I happened to see her in person after we returned. It was legit awkward. The celebrity reporter in me tried to break the ice-cold silence by blurting out a bazillion questions about her summer — “Oh that’s so cool! Good for you!” I said — but she countered with nary a question about my trip or anything remotely interesting about the things I had been up to, all of which I knew she already had seen in real time. I was confused.

During another brief encounter soon after, she buried her head in a book (she definitely saw me). Clearly, Jessica was avoiding me. But such was not the case with my Instagram. She clicked with gusto and every time I saw her name below the little Insta-eyeball it made me more weirded out that she was so interested in clicking but not at all interested in talking.

Look, I know what you’re thinking: It’s stupid to expend so much energy (see previous eight paragraphs) on something so trivial. After all, I’m the idiot sharing snaps. But I needed to know whether my feelings were legit, so I brought it up with my husband.

Typically, he’d just nod, grab a beer from the fridge and then walk off during such a ridic conversation, but he actually had something to contribute to this odd phenomenon I had brought to his attention. During a random playdate he overheard Jessica’s kid say to our kid: “My mom says your mom shares her whole life on Instagram.”

Burn. Clearly, Jessica has thoughts on this topic that she’s sharing with others. If you have a lurker in your life, it can be tough to understand their ways. So, in the interest of being proactive, I asked psychologist and therapist Leslie Becker-Phelps, author of the new book Bouncing Back from Rejection, for advice on how to move forward with this friendship — or not. Here are her recommendations:

1. Just ignore it. It could be time to take a cue from Frozen 2, and, you know. “You might consider whether you can just let it go and ignore her following you,” Becker-Phelps suggests. That’s definitely some food for thought — and thought and thought and thought, which, clearly, I’ve already done TOO MUCH of. Which leads us to the next option.

2. Block her. “Do you feel so uncomfortable that you feel the need to block her?” she asks. The thought has definitely crossed my mind. If it has crossed yours, too, more chicken nuggets for thought: “As for when it would make sense to block her,” she adds, “that would be when it is causing you more distress or discomfort than you are willing to deal with.” A break for a few weeks could be just what I (and you) need.

3. Talk about it. Is this friendship important to you? It’s a valid question that needs to be answered. If the answer is yes, it might be time for some coffee talk. “If it fits with your relationship, I’d say you could sit down and talk honestly with her about your confusion … you might leave out the part about being creeped out by it,” she says. “You might open it up with noting that you used to talk more and see that she still follows you on Instagram, but that she seems distant when you see her. Is she upset with you in any way?” Maybe I’ve upset her in some way.

Maybe my friend is going through a tough time and is withdrawing from other friends, too. How horrible of a person am I if she really just needs someone to engage with in real life and doesn’t know how to say that? “It’s impossible to know what she’s thinking, though I’m sure we can come up with many theories,” says Becker-Phelps.

Is your lurker shy? Judgmental by nature? Socially awkward? Maybe traits you already know about your friend can give you more insight into how they’re feeling, she says. I could potentially spend the rest of my life sitting here trying to figure out what’s going on the other side of my Instagram story, and that would just be asinine. So, perhaps removing social media from this friendship is the key here. If I posted no stories at all, there would be plenty to catch up on the next time we bumped into each other.