How many followers do you have? Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of social media, your follow count has become increasingly important. Some recruiters even look at social media followings to rate prospective employees. But many of us who don't use social media for work still desire to be followed. Maybe it's just innate human desire to want some form of attention and affirmation—especially if it's in the form of heart-shaped, thumbs up notifications.
To find out why people want to be followed, artist and programmer Lauren McCarthy built Follower, an app which lets people request a real life follower for one day. To sign up, you must answer two questions: "Why you want to be followed," and "Why someone should follow you?"
The questions push you to think about your often hidden or unquestioned desire for attention: the same reasons we set our Instagram accounts to public or add a hashtag to a tweet. If chosen, McCarthy will select a random date and follow you for an entire day. At the end of the 24 hours, she sends a picture of you from the day. There is no contact and no interaction.
So do we want followers because we're insecure? Does knowing that people are watching motivate us to do more interesting things? (One applicant actually admitted to feeling guilty that she was "boring" on the day she was followed.)
Playing with the idea of sites that let people buy followers, McCarthy asks, "Could a real life follower provide something more meaningful or satisfying?" We talk to her to find out.
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BROADLY: Why did you want to start a project around the idea of followers?
In the online space, people say and post things in hopes of getting reactions from others, and often it all feels quite mundane. The "Follower" performance was partially inspired by another performance I did called "Friend Crawl," where I spent ten hours a day for a week looking at 1,000 different people's social media. I was overwhelmed by how much everyone blended and started to feel the same after a while.
In contrast, while following someone, so much of my attention was on them, and every little gesture felt interesting and meaningful. I wasn't Googling every fact ever posted about them online, I was instead watching them interact with a cashier, look for a place to sit on the BART, or choose something to eat, and trying to extrapolate a whole person from that.
What was the experience of following someone like? Did this mirror following someone online?
There's something both exciting and intense I feel each morning, not knowing where they may take me. I follow them all day, watching, starting to imagine what they are like, what they are thinking and saying, trying to guess where they might go next.
There is something strangely intimate about the whole thing. By the end of the day, I feel as though I know them, and we have had a prolonged experience together. I've followed them through the rain, watched them play tennis, eat with friends, watch a movie, shop for groceries, walk to and from their homes. At times it seems they're doing things just for me, or maybe they even notice me, but I can't ever be sure.
I spend all day completely focused on them, wondering if they've noticed me, are thinking of me at all, or if they've forgotten completely. For some reason, through the process, I find myself really liking every person I follow.
Did you get the feeling that some of the people you followed were looking to fill something in their life—maybe they felt lonely or just bored?
That is part of the art piece, asking people to reflect and consider whether they'd rather follow or be followed, and why. The reasons range a lot—from pure curiosity, to a desire for connection or support, to people that want to tell or show me some sort of story. Some people I would follow on long walks, others would go straight to their office while I sat outside the building thinking about them, watching them move from room to room.
The project illustrates our increasingly open attitude of letting people know our location… What are your thoughts on the trade-off between privacy and convenience?
We're living in this weird, anxious time where on the one hand, surveillance is pervasive and out of control, and on the other hand, we have this intense desire to be seen, to be followed, to share every intimate detail of our lives.
With the gig economy, it seems we're willing to try any app that promises us something convenient, novel, or useful. Putting an interface between people [can] weaken your connection to the person on the other end. With Uber, you push a button and watch as the person you summoned moves toward your location. I wanted to invert this—the people being followed don't track my location, I track them. What they get instead is the thought that there is a person there, watching them with care and focus.
Ultimately, I want to create different sorts of interactions and relationships than we have normally. I'm wondering, as much as technology may separate us at times, could it also bring us together in new and interesting ways?
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In one of your past projects, Social Turkers, you live-streamed yourself on dates to crowdsource advice. You said that you are facing two of your biggest fears: meeting new people for the first time and not being in control. Do you feel like being creative helps you overcome fears?
Yes, definitely. When I make things in my life that scare me or are difficult into art, it changes them. Instead of feeling like they are all-encompassing things that are happening to me, I am able to detach and see them as things I can choose my relationship to. There is also something in making my everyday life into a performance—I realize that it is indeed that all the time, and I have the power to choose who I want to perform, who I want to be. It is not something that has to be imposed on me.