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How to Watch Instagram Stories Without Being a Creep

Those bubbles at the top of your feed play by different rules than static posts

Illustration: Evan Weselmann

InIn the four years since Instagram launched Stories, the video clips that display as small bubbles atop users’ feeds have become extremely popular. In January 2019, 500 million people posted or viewed Instagram Stories daily, up 66% from 2017, (Snapchat, by comparison, averaged 202 million daily users in 2019.)

Despite this popularity, the rules of how to properly use Instagram Stories are still up for debate.

Instagram Stories are fleeting, vanishing within 24 hours, à la Snapchat, and are generally posted with the expectation that they are captured and uploaded in the moment, without first being FaceTuned or Photoshopped. “As people are more aware that Instagram pictures were staged, there was a tension,” explains David Craig, a media professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of Social Media Entertainment: The New Intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Stories, he says, show that someone is spontaneous and communicative, helping them nurture the relationship between themselves and their communities. When Swedish communications researcher Marina Amâncio interviewed Instagram Story users, Sofia, a 21-year-old medical student, explained to her, “If I go to a party I want to remember, I’ll post a ’gram,” she said. But for daily things, like food, I like to share that in Stories.”

Because of their spontaneous nature, Instagram Stories somehow feel more casual and intimate than the static posts on Instagram and other social media. Someone who’d never post a photo of their baby may have no qualms bouncing them around for an Insta Story, despite it being more revealing in terms of location and setting. Following an ex’s Instagram feed doesn’t seem that weird (sad maybe, but not weird), but watching their Instagram Stories can verge on creepy. This is amplified by the fact that with Instagram Stories, you can see who has viewed the content, not only who has commented or liked it.

When Amâncio tracked user data and habits of 25 Instagram Story users who were 20 to 27 years old, she found that each checked their account multiple times a day, and they all paid attention to who viewed their stories.

This visibility makes it easy to spot very specific behaviors that can be labeled creepy. There’s “orbiting,” where someone who’s ghosting you IRL starts viewing your feed on social. “Breadcrumbing” is when someone you’re vaguely interested in hearts or comments on your stories with no follow-through — a low-level catfish, essentially. A bunch of new terms will probably exist by the time this publishes. Visibility may also introduce a new paranoia about whether people can tell how much or how often you’ve viewed their content — for instance, whether your bubble of stories appears toward the beginning in their list of options to view. (An Instagram spokesperson assured me this is not the case, saying the algorithm considers timeliness, relationship, and “more.”)

In light of this new dynamic, more and more people are changing their settings to private — including influencers. Around 45% of all social media users have private accounts. Yup, I said influencers: Moist Buddha, a comedian and meme master, has 2.1 million followers on his private account (he accepted my request within 12 hours), as does Neat Mom, with 867,000 followers.

The term “private,” in this case, is used more loosely. It’s about being in the inner circle of an influencer’s fans. It takes your high school clique up a notch. If you’re allowed into the influencers’ (or the popular kids’) Insta accounts, you get to see their stories as and when they appear. If you miss them, there’s no going back: 24 hours later, they’ll be gone forever. Be there or be square, right?

“There’s a premium to be able to spend time [with a] creator in a private space,” Craig says. “If you can only see them on their broadest platform, it’s because you haven’t earned enough trust.” But is it really intimate when they have a million followers? Yes, Craig says, when you think about scale — if 3 billion people use social media, being part of the 1 million “inner circle” is still exclusive. “It’s not quite the same as real-world direct intimacy,” he explains. “It’s not a one-on-one dynamic. It’s an interactive, networked, and mediated relationship between creators and their community.”

Instagram influencers going private underscores that there really are no hard rules when it comes to viewing or posting content on the platform. But some things come up more often. Obviously, any type of harassing behavior is unwelcome. If someone claps or hearts your story, it’s considered polite to thank them. “I do a heart or thank them in a message (if I see they did it more than once),” wrote one Redditor. “Yep, almost always, a heart usually,” wrote another. (This isn’t necessary if your views are from Russian spambots.) And if you’re worried people will think you’re weird because you viewed their stories, Craig says it’s most likely only weird for you, because people usually want their stories to be viewed — it’s validation.

“Users need to make sense and meaning out of the content they share online,” wrote Amâncio, the researcher who studied how Instagram users viewed stories. “Through their own narratives, they place themselves in context to the world.” She believes the importance of Instagram Stories is about the real-time experience of an event, which is shared with viewers who want to experience the same. It’s a little narcissistic, but for people still defining their place in the world, seeing and being seen is incredibly important.



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Zara Stone

Tech+Culture f/lance journo. Bylines: OneZero, Marker, Atlantic, Forbes, etc. Author: The Future of Science Is Female