The effect Instagram Stories have had on our lives is profound and probably not yet fully realized. When they first launched, a year ago today, the constant surveillance of your friends' every movement was already commonplace for teenagers, who had been using Snapchat and vlogging services for most of their lives. But teenagers don't really do much, so most of the posts take place in their bedrooms or in a car or at school.
Instagram Stories—more popular with Instagram's target audience of 20-somethings—tend to feature actual things happening: people getting wasted, dreamy vacation snaps, and parties you weren't invited to. They give an accessible, FOMO-ridden, moment-by-moment commentary of everyone else's lives, both intimate and anonymous. Most of us will happily leave unanswered messages from close friends to sit in WhatsApp overnight while aimlessly swiping through the Stories of people we haven't spoken to in years.
It makes sense then that the biggest impact Stories have had is on dating. Not since the launch of Tinder have romantic relationships been so shaken up by a piece of technology. That might be confusing to someone in a relationship because Stories do not offer any obvious way to flirt or meet new people. But let me explain, from the horrible trenches of single life, exactly how they do.
The Obvious Thirst Trap Story Formats
Originally, thirst traps were defined as "a sexy photograph or flirty message posted on social media with the intent of causing others to publicly profess their attraction." Over time—and thanks to Stories—this has become much more fluid—everyone is thirsty, everything is thirstier.
Stories have become such a hotbed there are recognizable tropes, too. Any mirror selfie or front- camera selfie (obvious); on or in bed in CKs or otherwise casual underwear; a screenshot of a song you're listening to—maybe you've spoken about it to the intended comments or you know people will engage with it. Or the classic: a roving front-camera video of you tilting your head, pouting, checking yourself out in the literal camera as it films, eye-fucking yourself and anyone else who is watching.
Here's how it works. You post a picture with one, two, or more people in mind. You want them to see it. They are doing the same. Then both of you engage in this strange mating ritual of seeing and being seen, validation and rejection, the ultimate power play. You lay the trap, they open the trap: The power is with you. They deliberately choose not to open it, to leave you waiting: the power is lost. But then they post a Story but you have been busy all day so you don't see it until the evening: You gain it back again. It doesn't end when you sleep together. It continues until it fizzles out, or you get in a relationship or hate each other.
If you have taken a photo that is too NSFW or just too blatant a thirst trap for a story considering the people who follow you, i.e. slobbering bros from work and your sweet aunt who devotedly likes every single one of your posts, then you can post it, go into story settings, and hide it from as many users as you want. That way, the person who you want to see it thinks you're posting a casually half undressed photo of you on your story. Little do they know, there's only ten of them it's coming up for. You're basically DMing them a pic without them realizing your grim little motive.
The Instagram Direct Inbox Has Revolutionized Sexting
There are two ways to feel after sexting. Option one: You look back over the profanity and feel a degree of pride at your ability to maintain high levels of spelling and grammar under pressure and wonder once again if you're off the cuff and spontaneous enough to do stand-up. Option two: You scroll back on what felt, at the time, sexy and alluring but turns out to be just horrible, sexually aggressive threats and weird unpleasant pictures that just sit there limp on the screen.
Before modern technology you'd never see yourself in the eye of the storm; the mirror was never held up to the horny horror within. It's a confrontation we all must bear now, whether we like it or not, and I'm taking a solid guess that most do not.
Instagram knows this. Going from thirst trap story to Instagram Direct means you can move from public posting to private flirting seamlessly. What's more: You can delete messages. Genuinely, delete them. They never happened. If you said something bad, you can make it disappear. Pictures and videos automatically delete after 24 hours, and once you've opened them, you can replay once or never again. They've made sexting as innocent as Tinder made online dating.
People You Like Are Intensely Boring
Before Stories, it was easy to believe that someone with nice hair and a European-sounding name was immensely fascinating. Then you find out they eat Raisin Bran every day for breakfast and spend Sundays at the pub with three men who look like they're all named Ben.
If you have any more than five stories—God forbid ten plus—then you have been "hidden" by me. No one is clicking to see your everyday routine, "Oh good, a row of dozens of tiny little rectangles, I can't wait to see a play by play of your entire day: from morning YouTube vids with your roommate to the office toilet selfie, to you walking along the road singing, on your way back home." Once you are known as one of these story posters, you are known. You are recognized by the community.
A picture of me walking around Peckham, England, looking like a dick
The Secret Meaning of Who Watches Your Stories First
When you post a Story, a list pops up of everyone who has watched it so far. But what order is that list in? Is it everyone I stalk from the top down? Is it everyone that stalks me from the top down? Is it some educated mix of the two worked out by an algorithm? This is the Instagram Stories question that has plagued us since its conception.
When I look at my list, it does seem like all the people I know want to sleep with me; the list features my best friends, known creepers, people who I know spend every second on their phones at the top. But it also looks a lot like everyone I want to sleep with plus my best best friends at the top. This distinction is so important. I have turned this over in my mind countless times.
So stressed am I by this that I emailed various people who claim to be Instagram's PR to get the following answer:
The list of people who view your Story is ordered based on a number of factors which include: people who recently viewed your Story and accounts you interact with the most on Instagram.
So. It's definitely not entirely random. It means something, but they won't tell us what. They are fucking with us.
You Cannot Hide Being Basic from Someone You Like
Teens today know not to do unrefined, illegal, or unemployable things on social media. They learned from the idiot generation who had no template for how to use the internet and were learning as we cyber bullied on Twitter and posted badly rolled joint pics on Facebook. If you—a 20-something—are on a one-way train to sitting on someone's roof in the drifting rain at 6 AM looking like The Ring victims listening to "Despacito" from a phone, then everyone you like and admire will know about it, because posting basic evidence is something we continue to do. We will not learn. This will either entice someone into your hole or repulse them depending on whether they are as much of a worm as you.
It's Too Fucking Easy to Accidentally Watch Someone's Story When You Just Want to Go in Their Page by Clicking the Circle Avatar Instead of Their Name
Scenario: You are at a friend's house on a summery evening, a few strong drinks deep to plough your way through the Sunday fear. You decide to show them the person you would comfortably kill a second cousin to sleep with—but whom you importantly do not follow on Instagram. You search them and clumsily hit their photo instead of their name. The entire screen is subsumed with an inane video. You instinctively thrust your phone across the room. Coming around to the screams of your friends—wait no those are your screams—you plunge to the floor, pick up the phone, turn it around, and catch the last of their long series of stories that have played automatically before the screen folds into a disappearing circle and you are back on the search page looking at the names of the people you stalk most frequently. You have "seen" every story.
You run into the bedroom and wish you could keep on running, smashing through the wall like a Looney Tunes character, instead you pick up the nearest pillow and into it you scream and scream and scream. Your friends laughter tinkles from the other room. For you this is the end; for them, banter.
People Who You Have Slept with Will Be Your Most Loyal Viewers
I only watch stories of people that I a) want to sleep with; b) my closest friends; c) women whose skin I would like to wear as a sarong, that is to say who are successful, cool, and talented. However, some of the people who most religiously and quickly watch my stories are people I slept with once or a handful of times then we never spoke again, who had ghosted me, or are people who actively dislike me or exes.
We all know everyone stalks each other and have been doing so since Myspace and MSN. Now, we're so much more open about it. Since stories are so seemingly spontaneous and never-ending, watching them feels like a non-committal and less of a statement, which is probably why people we've slept with feel comfortable doing it. Similarly, the bar of circles just being there at the top of the app is so tempting.
With dating it leaves you thinking: Does this person want to sleep with me again? Are they leaving me on the back burner? Am I just some sort of weird trophy lay that they like to keep tabs on? WHY ARE YOU HERE?
The Thirst Will Never Stop
I don't want to overstate the importance of this strange documentation we do, but stories have overthrown hundreds of years of theories of desire. There is no unattainable anymore. If you've been watching someone's Instagram stories after adding them from Tinder or after only sleeping with them a few times, you know them intimately and that fact simultaneously makes them far more approachable and non-threatening while allowing you to fall strangely headfirst into their world. For some people this bores and repels them, for others, it makes them obsessed. Tinder, and the fact that we make first contact with potential lays via our phones now, means flirting is sadly almost non-existent in real life, and in its place are Stories. These weird, pointless, funny, boring, intriguing, puerile pieces of content.
Even if stories die, there will be something thirsty to take its place. As Slavoj Žižek said, "desire's raison d'être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire." We are all trapped in this masochistic cycle of our own creation. Thirstier and thirstier until… death. Follow Hannah Ewens on Twitter.