Almost every social-media platform offers its users an option to privatize their account—a way for people to control who engages with their content, often to avoid the judgment, schadenfreude, bullying, and snark that are ubiquitous online. Many of these options aren’t terribly helpful, though. Facebook seems to constantly adjust its privacy settings, and it can be difficult to tell what information your friends have access to. On TikTok, unless you want a fully private account, you have to select who can see each and every video before you post. And Twitter’s protected-Tweets feature isn’t ideal if you have a large following; the “Retweet” button may be disabled, but your followers can still screenshot and share what you post.
Instagram arguably edges out the competition with its Close Friends feature, which allows people to share Stories with a curated list of followers that is stored in their user settings. Though the app, with its recent attempts to mimic TikTok, has bred frustration and seems to be growing irrelevant among Gen Z, Close Friends is a corner of the platform that many still find useful. The feature’s advantage is that it mitigates the effects of what social scientists call “context collapse—the idea that on social, there’s a flattening of multiple audiences in one space,” Elia Powers, an associate professor in the mass-communication department at Towson University, told me. “It’s akin to being at a wedding and giving a speech to friends, parents, in-laws, and people you don’t know.” Jokes about your college exploits, for instance, won’t necessarily land with your Boomer relatives as they might with your best friends.
Beyond privacy, the feature sometimes has a deeper payoff: It provides an option to be heard and feel validated in a safe yet open space of your own creation. “Even on a group of so-called close friends, something feels more public … like you’re putting views out into the world and taking a stand in a way that feels different than sharing it with a private friend,” Adam Kleinbaum, an associate professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business who studies the relationship between social networks and echo chambers, told me. “A lot of us feel very strongly about things we see on the news and things we see in the world, and the ability to speak out in a way that feels public, but also safe, is maybe a good thing.”
Devra Thomas, a 44-year-old arts administrator in Wake Forest, North Carolina, told me that social media often feels like a performance to her. “We have become a world where unless we share it, it didn’t necessarily happen,” she said. This propensity to share publicly isn’t just about vanity, though. People want to believe that their voices resonate, especially when it comes to sensitive issues around politics or shifting cultural norms or even personal struggles. “How do we, as a culture, talk about things if we’re not willing to share those things?”
In recent years, Thomas has experienced depressive episodes and wanted to talk about it on social media. But when she’d previously opened up on Facebook about her mental-health struggles, she’d run straight into context collapse. Some followers were supportive but others left comments such as “Are you sure you want to be talking about this?” and “A potential employer could see this.” To avoid the pushback, Thomas turned to Close Friends. About 20 people from her follower list of just over 700 now receive monthly updates about her progress—and it’s had the desired impact. Not only does she feel validated and emotionally soothed, but she also feels empowered. “I had someone on the Close Friends list let me know they were starting their own therapy journey because I’d been so open about my own.”
Everyone’s reason for using Close Friends isn’t necessarily as earnest. Some influencers use the feature as a paid VIP room where they offer exclusive content for a monthly fee via sites such as Patreon. Other people use it as a form of social strategy. I talked with the parents of some high schoolers who said that for their kids, getting on a Close Friends list is tied to status. Being removed from a list could be a sign of changing hierarchies.
For the most part, though, people cited trust as the reason they use Close Friends. “The Close Friends feature is not for the close friends but for the nonjudgmental ones,” Tatiana Dumitru, a 38-year-old branding specialist in Orange County, California, told me. She’s not especially tight with the moms at her kids’ school, though some of them follow her on Instagram. “They only get to see me or know me through what I post,” she explained. If they see her Stories of cocktails and nights on the town, she fears they’ll jump to conclusions about her parental priorities. “Maybe they’ll judge me and won’t let their kids play with my kids.” In the past, she said, people have left snarky comments such as “Boy, you go out a lot.” And when she posted Stories from a weekend trip to New York without her children, someone responded, “I could never leave my kids and go somewhere with my husband.” Dumitru knows that people without access to child care might be responding out of frustration or envy. Even so, the comments hurt. As a result, she thinks carefully about what she’ll post on her general feed, lest she hurt someone’s feelings or trigger their schadenfreude. “Life is easier and less complicated” among her 12 Close Friends, she said.
Zongchao Cathy Li, an associate public-relations professor at San Jose State University, told me her research has found that people feel less vulnerable on social media when they experience three things: a sense of control, self-efficacy, and perceived competence. “When you really know what you post won’t hurt you, or if you have a strong sense of empowerment … you can be more authentic,” she said. This aspect can be especially attractive for people who use the feature to express political views. Vanessa Mae Rameer, a 25-year-old researcher, had always posted Stories about her ultra-left-wing politics. But as she entered her mid-20s, she began to shift more to the center. On one occasion, after posting a Story that questioned the way critical race theory is taught in schools, one of her friends unfollowed her. They’ve since smoothed things out, but when Rameer has something controversial to explore, she now uses Close Friends.
One possible criticism of Close Friends is that cherry-picking your audience reinforces an echo chamber or what Kleinbaum calls “homophily,” the tendency to associate with like-minded people. But for Rameer and others, it’s more complicated. All the people I spoke with intimated that they choose their audience not because of what people think but how they think. For Trisha Christophel, a 41-year-old process engineer from Dunlap, Illinois, Close Friends is a place for people who like to dig into the complexity of an idea instead of simply accepting or dismissing it offhand. “On Close Friends, they’ll say, ‘Did you ever consider so and so?’” she told me. “If I posted that to a broader audience, people will say ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’d say something like that.’” Kleinbaum has seen people create their lists based on followers’ receptivity to conversation about specific topics, “not necessarily only choosing people who share their views,” he told me. “We have multifaceted identities and homophily operates on all” of them, cutting across race, ethnicity, gender, and political orientation. The “essential” connection that we share with the friends in our networks, he said, isn’t always obvious.
For many people, the ability to just be themselves is the most attractive element of Close Friends. “I’ll have a slightly raunchy sense of humor, and then speak eloquently about Roe v. Wade and why it’s important,” Christophel told me. Close Friends is “a way for me to show them who I am,” but without awkwardness. The last thing she’d want to do, she said, is walk up to a friend and say, “Hey, it’s Thursday, do you want to talk about Roe v. Wade?” And yet, many of the Stories shared between Christophel and her Close Friends become fodder for actual conversation. This happens, she said, because knowing that you’re on someone’s list—and in their inner circle—creates a baseline of trust. “It’s a deeper connection,” Christophel told me. “ I’m not just posting my breakfast for the masses to see.” The message is more, ‘Hey, I’m talking to you.’”