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24 February 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

New app “Being” pushes online voyeurism further than ever before

The app, and the impulses that inspired it, are proof that we don't just want to watch the people we follow – we want to know what it's like to be them. 

By Barbara Speed

I log on, and idly scroll through Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed, past a blonde woman with a cactus, a plate of tacos in the shape of a heart, and Ellie Goulding sitting cross-legged in a taxi. But actually, I’m not looking at Swift’s own photos at all – I’m scrolling through those of her followers. 

This is “Being”, a new app that allows you to view Instagram, in the words of its founder, “through someone else’s eyes”. It isn’t directly affiliated with the image-sharing app, but draws on the lists of accounts users follow. Thanks to this facility, you can now browse Instagram in the guise of any of its 400 million-odd public accounts.

At time of writing Swift has the most popular account – 2,286 people are currently scrolling through her eyes. Female celebrities like Selena Gomez and Katy Perry make up most of the top ten list, while Hillary Clinton beats Bernie Sanders by 623 people to his 407. Search some celebrities, however, and you’ll be disappointed – Emma Watson follows no one, so you see only a feed of her own posts.

It’s clear that the app has tapped into the obsessive interest we all share in the online lives of both celebrities and people we know. Megafans of One Direction and other pop stars already generate similar feeds, painstakingly building up identical timelines so they know what their idols are seeing on social media. As the profile of Twitter user @ZaynTLine explains: “We’ll let you know what’s happening on Zayn’s timeline. We just follow people Zayn follows.”

Being has also, however, plugged a hole specific to Instagram. Compared to other social media brands, Instagram is a relatively “closed” platform. You can’t see lists of the posts other users have liked, and the site’s “activity” tab is a little-used feature which only shows a few recent likes or follows from your network. Those used to knowing the minutiae of others’ Facebook activity find nowhere near the same level of detail on Instagram.

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Instagram users know the platform is more closed off, and use it as such. Several times, I’ve noticed on my activity tab that people in my network have liked half-naked or sexual photos that don’t match their carefully curated main feed. While some wouldn’t care who saw this, others may be shocked to realise the “activity” tab even exists. 

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Therefore, though Being will only reveal the accounts you follow rather than images you like, it seems inevitable that not everyone will view the app as positive. Stolen, an app which treated all public Twitter accounts as trading cards which could be bought or sold (without the user’s consent), sparked public outrage and was pulled from the iTunes store. Being, in the same way, has latched on to a public data set available on a social media site, and is re-releasing the data in new forms. This may, to some, feel like an invasion of privacy – the list of those you follow has, until now, been mostly your own business. Now, it’s fair game.

Being’s founder, Adam Mashaal, recounts in a Medium post how he tested the idea by borrowing a friend’s phone and scrolling through his Instagram feed:

What I found was that I was getting a rare, unfiltered glimpse of his tastes and interests through the guise of an Instagram feed. His feed was unique and colorful and, best of all, it was different.

He then goes on to describe the experience as an “authentic connection”, which he hopes to replicate with the Being app. But it’s clear from the quote above that this is not quite about “connecting” with your friends: it’s about watching them, and enjoying the accompanying thrill.

There still isn’t a good word for the kind of voyeurism most of us indulge online. “Stalking” connotes something less benign, while the preferred industry term, “interpersonal electronic surveillance”, or IES, sounds like something robots do to one another. But anyone with access to social media knows that one of its foremost purposes is to help us watch others without engaging with them at all.

Most commentary and research on the issue focuses on the “Facebook stalking” of exes, but social media “stalking” takes many forms. Some are much healthier: keeping tabs on friends living abroad, for example. Some are benign, but, when you think about it, odd: tapping through the holiday pictures of someone you barely know, or reading the birthday messages on a crush’s wall.

The app taps into this type of benign online surveillance and the buzz we get from it, but it also takes it a step further. It’s in the name: “Being” isn’t about watching other people, it’s about pretending you are them, even just within the walls of a single app. And it’s possible that what we’re really looking for when we scroll through the photos and posts of those we barely know is inside access to their lives and experiences.

This is why “authenticity” is so prized among those who make a living on social media. It’s not enough to provide a narrative – fans want to believe they’re getting access to the “real you”. They want to know your diet, what you wear, who your friends are and who you’re sleeping with. They want, in short, to know how to be you.

Other aspects of the modern world confirm this suspicion. We watch reality shows because they place us inside the lives of celebrities and ordinary people. The Daily Mail and other celebrity sites now offer “click to buy” on paparazzi shots of celebrities. Voyeurism, even in its original, mostly sexual sense, is a strange beast: it’s a seemingly passive activity, yet sparks an active thrill in the watcher. One theory purports that sexual voyeurism is a primary sexual act – the voyeur maps their own sexual desires directly onto those acting them out.

Clay Calvert, a communications academic, wrote in 2000 that reality TV is a form of “mediated voyeurism” (but not the sexual kind): “the consumption of revealing images and information about others’ apparently real and unguarded lives”. Of course, he notes that these “realities” are constructed for the viewer – just as, say, an Instagram feed is curated for your followers. 

From its inception, social media promised not that we’d gain a window on others’ lives, but that we’d be able to see them from the inside. “Being” is just the latest incarnation of this urge. 

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