You’ll always remember where you were when you found out that people can tell if you’ve watched their Instagram Stories.
Since 2016, Instagram has allowed users to collate pictures and videos into a cohesive “Story” that is visible on the app for 24 hours. When someone posts a Story, they can then swipe up to see a list of people who’ve watched it, frame-by-frame. You can see if someone looked at the first picture in your story but didn’t bother with the rest, and you can see if someone else decided to watch all 18 separate videos of your Valentine’s dinner.
Because of this, Instagram stories have always been a political minefield.
“I never realised people could see you looked at their Instagram stories,” says 28-year-old Kate. “I recoiled in abject horror when I realised this meant my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend could actually see I’d been snooping on her.” This feature has led others to be overcautious. Pippa, 23, mistakenly believed that Instagram notified people when you took a screenshot of their story (this feature doesn’t exist, although Instagram may introduce it soon).
“Once I wanted a screenshot of someone’s story, because the guy I liked was in it, and looking good, so I met up with a friend so she could take a photo of my screen,” says Pippa, who confesses to travelling for half an hour to get the candid shot. “It was such a low moment in my life.”
There are an unending number of ways that Stories become political. Nathan is a 24 year old who deliberately only watches the first part of people’s Stories if he’s mad at them. “I skip the rest so that they know I don’t care about them,” he explains. “Skipping over someone’s story is suddenly a lot more powerful than not liking their pics.”
The personal drama involved in posting and watching stories means that many people now want to get around Instagram’s “Seen by” list feature. Various third-party apps claim to be able to do this, but users have their own techniques.
Jess*, 25, engages in a new phenomenon which she calls “Insta-peeking”. Instead of clicking someone’s Story and being exposed as having watched it, she clicks on another person’s Story, next to it. Because Instagram run stories back-to-back, Jess can then lightly swipe to see the first frame of the next person’s story, but not properly click on it. This means she can see the gist of what is happening without her name showing up on a “Seen by” list.
“I am on Instagram a lot, and as a result started to worry that I was watching people’s new stories so quickly that I seemed more invested in their lives than I actually am,” says Jess, who explains that she personally always notices the people who regularly watch her stories within a few minutes of her posting them.
Jess’ peek-technique means she can decide whether it’s worthwhile to watch someone’s Story. “If it was a photo of breakfast posted three minutes ago, I would pass. If it was a fun-looking video posted 13 hours ago, I might go for the whole hog,” she explains. But why?
“I basically do it because I have a lot of social anxiety about seeming like an always-online, horny, lonely nerd waiting for fun parties to observe from a distance. I realise the tactic of peeking is probably weirder than just looking in the first place, but it just means I feel more in control of how I’m coming across.”
Insta-peeking is a fine art (if your finger slips, you’re exposed). Because of this, some people prefer to have a second, alternate Instagram account for their stalking needs. Gemma* initially set up a second account for health and fitness photos, but now uses the profile to look at both of her ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends.
“It’s beyond embarrassing,” says the 21-year-old, “I find it really odd that people I’ve barely spoken to in two to three years can effectively get inside my head (and vice versa), through what they do on social media.” She describes her social media usage as “a big game”.
Fiona*, 22, shares a second account with her friends. Her best friend made up a woman named “Marie”, created an account, and allowed Fiona to log into it in the summer of 2016.
“My ex-boyfriend got a new girlfriend – news which I handled extremely well by unsuccessfully attempting to stalk her Instagram,” says Fiona, explaining that she failed because the new girlfriend’s account was set to private, meaning Fiona would have to follow her to see her posts. “My best friend proved her friendship credentials by revealing that she had a fake account specifically for such occasions.”
At least 15 people now have the log-in for Marie’s account. “I’m obviously not going to reveal the account name, but the password is stalk100, which gives you an idea of its sole use.
“As far as I can tell, almost the entirety of everybody’s stalking is of past or potential love interests. Just last week my flatmate, who doesn’t even have Instagram himself, asked to use Marie to follow somebody he’s been seeing.”
For over a year, Instagram Stories’ “Seen by” feature has allowed people to see exactly who’s watching them. But has it? A whole host of new stealthy and sneaky social media behaviours may mean more people are looking than you think.
* Names have been changed
[See also: The real problem with Instagram is not the photo vs video debate]