life in pixels

On the Internet, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide

Illustration: Drante/Getty Images

Facebook is pivoting to privacy. Founder Mark Zuckerberg stood on a stage Tuesday at the company’s F8 developer conference and declared the “future is private”; going forward, Zuckerberg explained, the app and website will be overhauled with a focus on groups and events, less on wide-net sharing. Taken at face value — and Facebook, let’s be honest, hasn’t given us any reason to take company pronouncements at face value — it’s a smart initiative that we should applaud. But we should also be realistic about what “private” means — and about the fact that “groups” are only ever going to be so private.

Take, as a current popular example, Instagram Stories. They’ve lured you in with their promise of ephemerality — Stories automatically delete after 24 hours — and transparency. Users are shown a list of every account that views each story slide. Which means to watch your Stories a person needs, at the very least, to have an Instagram account. Sounds good, right? What’s the worst that could happen in 24 hours? If you really don’t want somebody to see something, you can just block their account. It does sound good. It’s also not reality.

One of my favorite online characters is a man named Robbie Tripp, who you might know as “curvy wife guy,” based on a viral-in-a-bad-way Instagram post from 2017 where he bravely admitted to loving his wife “and her curvy body.” Tripp would later threaten to sue a website after it compared his memoir to the Unabomber Manifesto.

I loved it. Tripp is the kind of person I enjoy following on Instagram purely to see what insane thing he’s doing now. Or rather, I should say, the kind of person I enjoyed watching. Last week, both Tripps blocked me on Instagram. Probably (definitely) because I said Tripp’s pregnancy announcement where he referred to his wife as a “sacred vessel carrying my seed” was “expectedly cringey.

How, then, could I find out that Tripp’s new project is a body-positive music video that is sure to become the song of (curvy) summer? I’d be sad to be missing out — except Tripp’s block is effectively meaningless. It’s a little bit more of a pain now, but I can still access all of his content just as I did before.

If you’ve got a public Instagram account, blocking somebody means they can’t see your account while they are logged into the app. All it takes to get past that is an incognito window. Voilà, you can see all the posts from the person who doesn’t want you to see them. But what about Stories? You can’t see those unless you’re logged in, and if somebody has blocked me, what then, huh? There’s a work-around here, too. There are plenty of third-party sites out there that scrape Instagram for Stories and, for added convenience, will provide videos and photos from Stories for any public account in a downloadable format. (I won’t link, but in under a minute of Googling, you can find one if you’re so inclined.) At that point, blocking somebody is more about saying I want you to know I don’t want you to see my stuff and less about actually cutting them off.

For truly private accounts, those work-arounds obviously don’t work. But do a quick YouTube search, and you’ll find plenty of people peddling hacks there as well. One suggests just using a friend’s account. A particularly detailed video I watched recommends making a dummy account to request follow access. “Make sure it’s the same gender as the person you’re requesting to follow,” the video advised. (Apparently that’ll better your odds that the person in question will accept a follow request from a stranger.) It’s creepy. It seems dubious. I’m not in the least recommending this. But it’s also easy to see a world where this works.

It’s funny to picture me hunched over a computer looking for a backdoor into the world of curvy-wife guy and his curvy wife. (Please, if you’re reading this, let me back in! I miss you!) It’s a lot less funny if you picture a darker situation, like somebody who blocked another user for making threats against them or harassing them. Or somebody who blocked a user because they didn’t want that person to have access to their location in real time. Kim Kardashian West was robbed at gunpoint in October 2016, and it’s possible her Snapchat posts helped tip off the robbers. Her sister Kourtney has said she puts her phone on airplane mode and only posts after she’s left a location for added protection.

Groups are private, Mark Zuckerberg has that right. But “private,” the adjective used to describe various levels of sharing by social networks, is not to be conflated with actual privacy. The minute you share something online with anyone, you need to operate under the assumption that you’re sharing it with everyone, that some other member of the group might screenshot it and post it elsewhere. (There’s a documented history of Facebook groups imploding — a member of parenting group Upper East Side Mommas once threatened to sue for libel — when content is shared beyond the confines of the group.) Instagram’s head of product Adam Mosseri told an audience on Wednesday about several new safety features the platform is working on, like a pop-up that would warn a user if their comment might be construed as offensive, as well as tools to better limit how people interact with your posts, like letting certain users see your content but not be able to comment on it.

These are all good ideas, but only once you’ve accepted the idea that your account is never going to be fully in your control. If you’re going to have a social account that shares with other people, you have to be okay with the knowledge that you are effectively sharing your content with everyone in the world always. Even people you intentionally “choose” not to. That choice isn’t really yours. You gave it up the minute you made an account and lied about reading the terms of service.

On the Internet, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide