This is 'Beyond the Grid', a monthly VICE UK column about Instagram.
By now, it's a familiar story. Last summer, a friend was ghosted by a man he’d been dating for six months. There had been no hint that this was going to happen. He just stopped messaging. If this had been 1999, you’d be forgiven for thinking your former lover had vanished. Maybe you’d ring them on the house phone a few times before giving up. Today, though, you know exactly where they are, what they’re doing and who they date after you. Not just through what they post on Instagram, but through what their friends post, their friend’s friends, with times and dates precisely mapped out like a data-led game of dot-to-dot.
Instagram has made stalkers of all of us. If this sounds really obvious, that’s because it is. Trawling through accounts owned by people in whom we have a vested interest has become standard online behaviour. Maybe you regularly look at your ex-partner’s new partner’s photos, comparing her fringe to yours and swiping through her selection of animal-themed watercolours from 2013. Maybe you always check up on this one couple you barely know, then feel personally upset when he leaves her for someone he met in Brighton with colourful tattoos and slogan pin badges. Maybe you don’t do any of this – you just live and breathe in the moment, in which case good for you Pocahontas.
The reasons we stalk people on IG are multifaceted and complex, and probably vary from person to person. It’s natural to want to find answers to questions, and when they’re right there in front of you, you’re going to seek them out. Also, other people are interesting. The trajectory of their lives differ from ours. Their aesthetics, their personality, their money and interests. All of this data is flattened onto a blue-lit screen for us to peer at and draw our own conclusions. It might sound more creepy if it weren’t so normalised. With all this in mind, I spoke to some people about who they stalk and why, in an effort to understand some of our weirder online habits.
“I have this draw to watching people from school”
I can’t stop stalking people from my secondary school. I don’t have real-life contact with them anymore and everyone seems to live online, so it’s like a high school reunion without the pressure. I went to school in west London, and there were a lot of ‘City of London’ boys and private school kids. I have this draw to watching them. I sat next to them in class every day for around seven years, so if they’re having some success or doing well, I’m like ‘we literally did exactly the same thing, so why am I not at that point? Or what am I not doing? Why am I not going out there and pushing myself?’
There are always the same few people at the top of my feed, because the algorithm is such a bitch. There’s one girl who’s living and travelling in Australia, another is a writer. And there’s one girl in particular who has her own podcast, her own media outlet and is doing all these insane things like travelling every three months while also doing a degree from SOAS… how?! Zara, 29.
“I'm not in touch with my exes, so this is the only way I can see what they're doing”
I stalk my exes. But… is it a reflex? Am I doing this because I actually care? These aren't exes that I have any feelings towards at all. But I'm not in touch with any of my exes in general, so this feels like the only way I can see they're doing.
I also think it's a slight mirror thing. The more time goes on, and the more you see someone change, it brings you back to thinking about how you've changed, and where you are relative to one another, all that kind of stuff. The embarrassing thing is that when you search regularly, their name comes up on your search history, because Instagram knows. It also makes me wonder how often they're looking at my stuff. And then you think to yourself “Do I care? No not really.” Sinead, 27.
“I stalk her in the hope she’s broken-hearted about leaving me dry for three months"
Unfortunately I am a victim of that painful ailment, "being obsessed with someone who said they loved me and then ghosted almost immediately." It's been over three months since we last spoke, and it's fair to say that this fact provides me with the daily torment of wondering whether I will ever be happy with anyone. As a result, I check her profile regularly (most days). And yes, I let my pride slip enough to watch her Instagram stories as well, to remind her I'm watching, waiting for that reply, babes.
You know that 'feel like pure shit, just want her back x' meme? That's the shit I wanna see. For one, I guess I stalk her to hope that she's broken-hearted about leaving me dry for three months. I also do it so I can stay updated in case she does something drastic and devastating to show she's not over it, like getting bangs. What I do know is that she's got lavender hair now, seems to be loving her fucking brilliant life, and definitely never watches my stories, which is just rude. I've told myself this is because she's convinced it would be too painful for her to see me looking radiant on the gram (absolutely lol), but we all know it's because she's got a new girlfriend. Annoyingly though, due to the queer girl nature of the relationship, I will never know if those girls she's hugging and professing to love in her stories are lovers or 'gal pals'. They're definitely, 100 percent gal pals. Grace, 26.
“My partner has this one particular lover who I've never met”
I’ve been in an non-monogamous relationship for three years, and while there are definitely more positives than there are negatives, I do get jealous sometimes. My partner sometimes sees this one particular lover, who I’ve never met, and for some reason this one really bugs me a lot. I definitely look at their Insta at least once a day, sometimes an almost compulsive amount, although I’m careful not to accidentally watch their stories. I can’t help but compare myself to them, even though I know that’s ridiculous because everyone’s different, and there will be things I have that they don’t. I have been trying to limit the amount of times I go on their account, but it’s hard when it’s right there. Dom, 29.
“I look at same-sex couples because I wish I could express my sexuality more”
I stalk couples the most. Mainly as a look at relationships, but also if I think they're cool, or I like their clothes. As a person, I question romance, I question my sexuality and I question my relationships a lot. I compare myself to these people, looking at their relationships and thinking “mine's not like that.”
I question my identity a lot, and that comes from looking at other people and thinking about how others see me. I'm bisexual, but I've been in a relationship with a man for three years. I don't know how to describe it, but I imagine myself exploring the other side of my sexuality more. And it's a weird identity thing – feeling like my bisexuality isn't expressed because I'm in a heterosexual relationship. So I find myself looking at same-sex couples because I wish I could express my sexuality more. My boyfriend is heterosexual, so it is harder. When I see other couples I think: am I expressing myself as my full self? Alice, 24.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.