Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “

What?

Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.

Why?

To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting


The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

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5 Responses to “Don’t Follow to Unfollow”

  1. In Twitter-land you are character-challenged so, so the phrase implies more than it explicitly states.

    But it certainly reads basically as “Don’t DO X, [just to turn around and] UNDO X.”

    As a dad to 3 kids, I’m pretty sure I said this at least once when dealing with shoe-tying:

    “Don’t ask me to tie your shoes and then untie them.”

    In other words … don’t waste my time.

    In social media, it also has the force of moral scolding (as you noted above): “Don’t follow me just to get me to follow you — and then unfollow me.”

    In other words … don’t try to trick me.

    It’s the social media equivalent of an article I just read last week about people walking (and perhaps stepping over) the ethical line with retailers, including people who BUY a product only so they can get some promised gift with the purchase and then return [UNBUY] the original product, keeping the purchase-related gift.

    The “gift with purchase” in Twitter is the “follow-BACK” which is a thank-you for the original follow, which is expected not to be returned via unfollowing.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Ran said

    That is so complicated . . .

    Not relevant to the linguistic point, but the follow-then-unfollow thing reminds me of this: http://www.snopes.com/embarrass/celebrity/impress.asp

  3. Linguistically: yes, I find myself making similar misreadings frequently in Twitterland, sometimes only realising my mistake hours later or the next day (if at all).

    Sadness-wise: This boils down to the ill-defined (but very real) division between paid microbloggers and the rest. If you’re one of the growing minority blogging for pay (e.g. to represent a brand, to raise awareness for an NGO etc etc) then it’s often the case that your remuneration is based directly on such thing as total follower numbers, follower/following ratio, retweet count etc etc.

  4. Funny, I interpreted it sort of correctly, but in a non-hostile way: “Don’t follow me if you’re just going to unfollow,” i.e. check out my feed before you sign on. The sad subtext is interesting, but luckily I’m nowhere near that sector of the Twittersphere.

  5. On reading “don’t follow to unfollow,” I assumed it meant, “don’t follow me just for the sake of ostentatiously unfollowing to advertise your displeasure with something I’ve already said.”

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