science of us

If Becoming Invested in Strangers’ Lives Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right

Photo: Mar Portal del Pozo/Getty Images

If you were to take a look at my iPhone’s Screenshots folder — and I would sooner die than allow this — you would see I’ve saved a great number of Instagram photos of people I do not know. Some are bona fide celebrities, but most are somewhere south of actually famous. They are “famous on Instagram,” or sometimes YouTube, and I follow them not because I’m a genuine fan, but because their social-media presences provide me with the dramatic twists and turns my own life generally lacks. I follow them because their behavior mystifies and mortifies me. And I screenshot them to send them to someone who, inevitably, won’t care as much as I do, and who can’t understand why I do, either.

Last week, a woman I follow on Instagram announced she was moving in with her long-distance girlfriend of maybe four months. I know it was that long not because she said so, but because I went back and pieced a plausible timeline together. Another woman I follow met and married her now-wife within the space of a year. I follow these people expecting some shit to go down. They’re like soap operas, but better, because they’re real people — albeit ones I do not and will not ever know personally, and often with very little that’s interesting about them besides being unusually attractive. If their lives were TV shows, they’d be mostly very boring. But a TV character has a very finite lifespan: rarely more than six years in even the best cases. On social media, in theory, I could follow someone’s life indefinitely. There’s something strangely comforting in that kind of continuity.

As it turns out, there’s a term for this particular form of attachment. Ben Parr, author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, tells me what I’m experiencing is called a parasocial relationship. “We can feel a strong relationship, and feel like it’s a two-way relationship, with a brand or a celebrity or an influencer, when really it’s a one-way relationship,” he tells me. “Social media specifically has increased the parasocial relationships we have with people, by making us feel like we’re seeing the personal lives of our favorite people. And so we feel like we actually know them when we actually don’t.”

To me, there is something especially appealing about the Instagram striver, whose attempts to capitalize on her good genes and/or wealthy background are more transparent than those of, say, Taylor Swift. The average Instagrammer’s brand is dependent on his or her “realness” and “relatability” in a way that isn’t true of most A- and B-listers. And even though we may know, on a rational level, that we’re not seeing much of these people’s real lives, on an emotional level, they are generally very good at making us forget that. “These platforms are more intimate and more personal,” says Parr. “We can see their bedrooms.”

“They’re using cell phones [to take their videos]. They’re communicating one-on-one with fans on a regular basis.” These are also people who have complete control over their social-media presences, which is usually not true of major celebrities. Often, this means that their presences (while still highly curated) are less controlled than their more famous counterparts’ — there are Instagram stars I follow whose relationship history can be tracked five or six exes back because none of those pictures were deleted when they broke up. Taylor Swift’s people would never let that happen.

Social-media stars are often just plain messier than actual celebrities, which sometimes makes me worry I’m in it for something uncomfortably close to schadenfreude. I wanted to know: Does this make me a bad person?

Infuriatingly, Simon Rego, chief psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, will not tell me, definitively, that I am not. When I describe to him my penchant for social-media rubbernecking, and ask if it seems to him like I might be evil, he tells me, “I don’t know you, Katie. In my field I don’t define a person that way.” What he does tell me is that while the format that enables my interest may be relatively new, the phenomenon itself is not. “This predates social media,” he says. “It’s like what happens when there’s a car accident on the highway. There’s a sort of built-in tendency to be curious about and interested in potential pitfalls that other people could make, maybe as a way to keep our own behaviors in check and maybe as a way of highlighting our own strengths.”

This is certainly true for me — part of the enjoyment I derive from other couples’ unguarded hastiness (and the breakups that follow early and effusive gushing) is in its opposition to my own M.O., which is to move more slowly and, in my view, more pragmatically. (This formula, of course, belies my apparent belief that any of this stuff has a “correct” timeline.) If a couple I follow on Instagram moves in together in a month and breaks up a month later, I feel superior, and reassured that “good” choices are rewarded, and “bad” choices are punished.

Part of it, too, is that the nature of social media itself (and Instagram in particular) rewards users for “going big” when they post (as in, a bigger life event with a more effusive caption leads to more likes). This, in turn, encourages many users to highlight only the most glamorous, most thrilling moments of their lives. And that makes the non-Insta-famous among us jealous.

Kathryn Smerling, a family therapist on New York’s Upper East Side, says it’s important for us to acknowledge the role social-media stars themselves play in fostering that jealousy. “There is such a discrepancy between how people live on a daily basis, and their level of happiness on a daily basis, than those things they post, which are the high points,” she says. “They’re curating themselves.” And curation, however innocently intended, however familiar we are with its practice, is still an effective act of manipulation. It’s presenting the best possible view knowing it isn’t the whole story. My rational brain finds the social media endless-joy-gusher infuriating. My emotional brain can’t get enough.

The experts I spoke to all cautioned that it’s possible to become too obsessed with one’s social-media hate-follows (or envy-follows, or whatever twisted feeling motivates you personally), just as it’s possible to become too obsessed with most things. “There’s no diagnosis for this as of yet, so we have to rely on the traditional markers of when something becomes problematic or potentially pathological,” says Rego. “What we typically use is a person dedicating an inordinate amount of time to an activity without any payoff or benefit to them.” (Hm.) He adds, “Is it disrupting their otherwise existing social life, or occupational life, or family life, or home activities?”

For me, I’m relieved to say, that’s a no. And I’ve developed my own sort of litmus test, so I’ll know if/when I’ve gone off the deep end: Are you a person who would comment “what happened with you and [your ex]” on the Instagram post of a beautiful 22-year-old YouTuber, or would you merely think it to yourself (and maybe look for clues via tagged photos)? If it’s the former, you’re in too deep. If it’s the latter, you’re only human.

Why Am I So Invested in Strangers’ Social-Media Presences?