Like most adults, I’ve frequently found myself lightly Insta-stalking in the evening as I procrastinate on sleep. I do my best to make sure I flick my scroll finger verrrry lightly so as not to accidentally like a 3-year-old “sexy” selfie of a friend of a friend of a friend I’ve never actually met; once, I wandered down a rabbit hole involving several years’ worth of photographs on the account of the unfamous tween child of a B-list comedian before suddenly realizing how weird that was. (He did magic tricks, though!) But I’d never reached the level of boredom, or stalkerdom, that led me to the Following tab on the Activity page — the place where you can see what posts the people you follow are liking.
Never, until a friend complained that not only was the guy she was dating constantly liking the swimsuit photos of random 17-year-old girls, but, as she breathlessly informed me, so were many of our mutual male friends and acquaintances! “Anytime you wake up early, just look,” she advised, shaking her head. “You won’t believe it.”
Suddenly, the Following tab became much more interesting. Armed with my new knowledge, I began to check out the activity feed first thing in the morning — and, sure enough, under the accounts of many of my male friends, a grid of photos of mostly un- or underdressed girls appeared! When I clicked through these photos, I’d find that each one had thousands of likes, and each woman would have at least tens of thousands of followers. And when I checked out their entire feeds (scrolling lightly!), every photo was the same: aggressively sexy, and drowning in a flood of likes.
It was a vast and troubling new world of Insta-stalking. It’s one thing to see the social-media self friends and acquaintances are consciously presenting. But it’s very different to watch your friends express themselves in ways you are pretty sure they don’t realize are public. Like a soft version of gaining access to pornographic searches, a close observer could even begin to pick out physical preferences: One person might be liking shots that focused on breasts, another mostly “fitness models.”
But the question I couldn’t answer was why, oh why, my friends and acquaintances felt the need go so far as to like the posts. It’s one thing to find yourself on an insomnia-fueled, libido-driven Instagram kick. But to like a post is to ask for attention from its creator. Liking says “Look at me, I exist! Pay attention to me!” Did my friends — smart men! Or so I thought! — actually think these girls were going to … respond? Reach out to them? Offer marriage? What, exactly, did they think was going to happen?
These were not guys whose public taste in women tended anywhere near the barely legal or barely clothed. These were dudes who went out with or married age-appropriate women — many of whom are my friends. Guys who had mostly eschewed stripper bachelor parties, even “ironic” ones. Guys who self-described as feminists. The Following tab had turned my life into Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or a horrible gender inversion of What Women Want.
I started to see these friends differently. On the outside, they were normal dudes in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, running in the park while listening to Gimlet podcasts, picking up dinner ingredients at the Greenmarket, watching John Oliver … and then turning out the light and visiting a magical Instagram fairyland in which they make desperate pleas for attention from orange teenagers in Venice Beach. All the while, having no idea that anyone who followed them could see it all with a few taps.
After months of watching him and shaking her head, the friend who first pulled back the curtain on this for me finally told one of her close friends over dinner that everyone could see what he was doing on Instagram late at night. He freaked out and ran to the bathroom in order to unlike his most recent round of posts as fast as he could. He was grateful that she had told him before his wife found out, and she told him she never wanted to talk about it again. He agreed.
A week later, my friend browsed over to the Following tab, and there he was, stacking up bikini photo likes like a rat with a cocaine button.