Jennifer O’Connell: Why do we ‘hate-follow’ people on social media?

Who is more inane, the influencer posting about their #blessed life, or the outraged follower?

“She’s, like, really annoying. I can’t stand her, but I follow her anyway. Is that wrong?”

This outburst came over coffee with a woman I'd only just met. We were talking about Instagram, and an influencer she "hate-follows". I follow this influencer too. I have also met her in real life. I like her. But I didn't say so, because I fear embarrassing people only slightly less than I fear leaving the GHD plugged in. "She's so inane. Why does she even think anyone cares?"

I could have pointed out that that her tens of thousands of followers might have something to do with it. But I didn’t, because I also know a bit about the rush of squalid pleasure you get from following someone who gives you ire. There are at least a dozen people I follow who make me feel dumpy, slow-witted and inadequate. Their houses, with their #kindlygifted forest green couches and Moroccan tiles, make mine look unloved and under-styled; their marriages make mine look stale; their selfies make me Google things like “how much is a mobile LED spa”.

Generally, I accept these influencers’ posts for what they are – not a reflection of their real lives, or a judgement on mine – but a carefully curated package which, if they’re canny, they’re earning a few quid from on the side. The most successful Instagram influencers are selling a lifestyle, and that lifestyle doesn’t typically involve rows you’d be mortified if anyone overheard, or sheets you can’t work up the energy to change.

For all she is photographed dancing on a sunlit lawn in a white swimsuit, Vogue Williams is just as likely as me to have TV dinners far too often, or a fruit fly infestation in her kitchen she can’t get to the bottom of. But you won’t hear about that, because it’s not what her brand is about.

Some people seem to get inexplicably furious when the curtain is lifted, and the illusion is shattered. One Nashville-based influencer, Tiffany Mitchell, made global headlines recently when she was accused of staging a motorcycle accident. In the implausibly artful pictures of the accident, she was seen lying on the ground, her clavicle lit up by the dying sun, and a bottle of designer water in the foreground. She denied it was staged, but it wasn't exactly a scene taken from Untold Stories of the ER either.

The idea that someone might be tempted to, let’s say, storyboard a motorbike accident to give their Instagram follower counts a boost is troubling. But more troubling was the level of vitriol directed at her. Do Tiffany’s followers honestly believe they’re getting unfiltered, warts and all reality when she posts about, say, the “magic indoor cheese pairing picnic (#sponsored)” she recently shared with friends?

Happy-clappy smugdom

We all know Instagram isn't real life, yet some kind of strange cognitive dissonance takes over with those who spend too much time on there. They insist on their influencers being real and authentic, yet they seem genuinely affronted when they uncover evidence of their real, authentic, flawed humanity. One of Instagram's most successful, relatable(ish) influencer couples are Simon and Clemmie Hooper, who post as Father of Daughters and Mother of Daughters. According to Simon's agent (of course he has an agent), he "uses his sharp sense of humour coupled with a creative use of real life and honest images to engage with his audience". There's clearly a market for it: he has over one million followers.

But his audience is not entirely united in admiration. There are corners of the internet entirely dedicated to hate-following the Hoopers – unpicking their marriage; their parenting; her hair; his metaphors – in terms that frequently escalate into a kind of collective delirium. “Sickening, middle-class, happy-clappy, smugdom at its worst,” goes one scathing verdict.

“Everything we have in our home we have bought ourselves… there is a quiet dignity in that and that’s something they will never have,” rails another, with no thought to the quiet dignity in assiduously tracking the online movements of someone you profess to despise.

If you follow somebody because they seem just like you, only fractionally better-lit, I can see how it might be irritating when they start flogging frozen chips for loads of cash. But you could just hit mute.

There are all kinds of psychological theories about why lots of people choose to hate-follow instead: they do it because it’s easier to define themselves by what they’re not, than by who they are. Or they do it because it fires up the dopamine centres in their brain. Or because it’s bullying without the social consequences. Or because hate-following offers a heady blend of tribalism, gossip, self-righteousness and outrage.

She’s so inane, my friend said. But really, who’s more inane – the influencer posting about their #blessed life in their #gifted Mama sweatshirt, or the person following just to work themselves up into an orgy of outrage?

"Tell me," wrote the poet Mary Oliver. "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" "Hate-follow Father of Daughters on Instagram" probably wasn't what she had in mind.