Instagram Is an Extremely Private Social Network — Until It Isn’t

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A new iPhone app called Being, created by developer Adam Mashaal, allows you to view Instagram through the eyes of anyone with a public account. It does so by pulling the list of people your target is following and re-creating their Instagram timeline. It really is like “being” that person on Instagram — except that you can’t see their private messages or their friends with locked accounts, of course.

Why would you want to do that? Well, a Motherboard article about Being points to one way the app can be used: to satisfy our curiosity about how the famous and powerful use Instagram. (We’re clearly curious about this — people love to see the bizarro-world videos of what an Insta-famous celebrity’s phone looks like with notifications turned on.)

A presidential candidate’s Instagram experience would probably feel hollow to us, since few are personally using their accounts — they’re only following politically safe brands, organizations, and other politicians. More human celebrities, who tend to check and update their own accounts, follow just a handful of people they actually know. In those cases, Being could reveal cliques of close friends — some famous, some not. Being could, I suppose, also be used as a discovery engine. Find a tastemaker you trust, look at what they’re looking at on Instagram. Copy their style, friend their friends, blog about it. This seems like the most practical, although not the most interesting, revealing, or voyeuristic, way to use the app.

And then there’s the other way to use the app: to stalk your noncelebrity friends and acquaintances. Are the adult men you know exclusively following teenage bikini models, for example? Some people already inadvertently reveal this information by compulsively clicking “like,” not knowing those “likes” are public, but Being offers an even more unsettling way to look through the eyes of a creeper.

This reveals something important about how we think about privacy. On Instagram we tend to imagine our follower lists as private. But this isn’t a hard-coded setting, and Being isn’t making anything public that isn’t already being exposed through Instagram’s API (the interface that allows websites and apps to request data from the service). Theoretically, we knew when we signed up that anyone can see who we follow — we just trust that no one will be obsessive enough to reconstruct our personal social graph by hand. But Being takes all of the effort out of that process. It doesn’t expose new data; it just aggregates it differently, creating a new experience.

It’s tempting to say there’s nothing unsettling about Being because the information it collects is all public, but that goes down the slippery slope toward the most common, bad anti-privacy argument: “Why are you worried? Do you have something to hide?”  

Is it a cool and edifying new way to understand other people online, or a borderline violation of privacy? Perhaps it’s both.