Future Tense

Who Are Those Strangers Watching Your Instagram Stories?

They may be part of a new strategy that exploits our tendency to take an interest in people who appear to take an interest in us.

Robot watching an Instagram story on a phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Of the big three social network sites, Facebook is for long-winded political rants, Twitter is for arguments and professional brags, and Instagram is for vacation photos. Instagram stories, however, are a small oasis. While your friends might post their most polished photos or flattering selfies with thoughtful captions to their grids, their stories are a glimpse into their actual everyday: a car they saw with a horrible custom plate, screenshots of a funny text conversation, messy karaoke videos.

The result is a more intimate feel. Instagram also shows you the users who have watched your story and allows you to block them from doing so. That allows you to entertain the fantasy that you have some control over your content, including who makes up your audience. It’s a fun exercise in narcissism, too; a high-viewer account suggests importance, and it’s easy to convince yourself that views from particular people—a new acquaintance, an ex—mean something.

I’m a small-time Instagrammer, so my most frequent viewers are my mother-in-law, my friends, and school or work acquaintances. Earlier this year, that changed: Strangers were viewing my story. Intrigued, I clicked on each profile to see if we had mutual friends or interests, but mostly we didn’t. It was unclear why an “actor/singer/model” named Jonathan with 5,000 followers would watch videos of my dog, or how a granite countertop company in Marshfield, Massachusetts—a town I’ve never visited—even found my account.

What began as one or two strangers watching my story has morphed into a significant portion of my views. My latest story, a good dog I saw sticking his head out of a car window, has been viewed by 130 accounts, 15 of which are strangers. While I initially blocked each stranger’s account from viewing my story, I stopped after my block list hit 25 people; the act seemed futile, a digital whack-a-mole. When I asked some friends if this had been happening to them, my friend Matt told me that 40 of the 105 people who viewed his story yesterday were strangers.

A quick Google search revealed Matt and I are far from the only users wondering what’s going on. One Redditor posted in an Instagram subreddit asking why “these russian DJs, models and even a playmate” are watching their stories. A possible answer: In another post in that subreddit, a Russian user claims that social media marketing agencies in Russia have “begun to use ‘mass storyviewing’ as an account promotion strategy.” These agencies enlist bots to make it look as though their clients’ accounts are watching a huge number of strangers’ stories. It could just be a coincidence, but in looking at the first 25 people I blocked, 10 of them came from Russia.

Over the past few months, this “mass storyviewing” seems to have become popular in English-speaking countries as well. Almost all the stranger accounts viewing my most recent story are American. In a video made in July, one YouTuber reviews a “secret Instagram tool” called Mass Looking. At the time, the site was available only in Russian, but it looks like the company has wised up to its English-speaking market as well. The service’s landing page advertises the ability to watch up to 30 million stories a day: “Can you imagine how many people will see your account in just a day? The results will be tremendous!” Other services, like Jarvee, GramHQ, and IG Mass Viewing, offer plans starting at $10 a month to view millions of stories. At least one user in a search engine optimization forum claims to have gained about 50 followers in one day after a bot watched 1.5 million stories from the user’s account.

The logic, according to the YouTuber, is that getting on these people’s radars will result in additional engagement. “If you see millions of people’s accounts a day, a lot of people are going to see your account and come back to your profile, potentially check you out, potentially like some of your stuff, and potentially follow you.” Another YouTuber suggests that this works best with unremarkable Instagrammers like me, people who have just a few hundred followers. (Like any aspiring influencer, he also takes this opportunity to emphasize he’s not one of them; he has 50,000 followers.)

This mass viewing strategy exploits our tendency to take an interest in people who appear to take an interest in us, a phenomenon social psychologists call reciprocal liking. In a classic 1966 study, psychologists enlisted participants to have a conversation with a stranger. (The “stranger” was actually in cahoots with the researchers.) Afterward, participants were told that the stranger either liked them (“He seems like a really profound and interesting person, well-informed”) or disliked them (“He seems like a really shallow and uninteresting person, not well-informed”). In general, participants were more likely to rate the stranger more likable on a survey if the stranger had given them a positive review.

If you assume users’ Instagram views are a proxy for their interest in you, it can feel flattering to know that someone—especially someone with lots of followers, who seems vaguely Instagram famous—is curious about what you’re up to. In an NBC piece about why we check our Instagram story views, Kalhan Rosenblatt writes that “the ability to see who is looking at your Instagram story gives teens and young adults some sense of where they fall in their social hierarchies.” This reinforces any narcissistic tendencies we might already have: Of course influencers are looking at my story, because I’m important and interesting!

But for the generations of people who have grown up online quietly learning the etiquette of not being obviously creepy on social media, this mass viewing strategy is painfully obvious as a sham. After seeing that an outdoors photographer viewed my story, I wondered for about three seconds whether he might’ve just stumbled upon my story. After looking at his profile and discovering he has about 68,000 followers and is hawking nutrition supplements, it was clear he was trolling for new followers. “I was curious the first time I noticed, but it was very clearly just commercial accounts doing it, so I never felt too special,” my friend Matt told me. “But I guess I’m just a coldhearted cynic.”

I’ve come to feel kind of sorry for the folks I see in my viewer list who obviously paid for the views. Is this company desperate for new business, or is this fitness instructor really that thirsty for new followers? It’s no secret that social media can elevate your work, and commodifying people in this way—hoping to twist their emotions in hopes that they provide you with validating “engagement” numbers—is a depressing example of the incentive structures social media has created. It might not be fair, but I lose respect for businesses or creatives who resort to these tactics—which is, arguably, the opposite of these accounts’ intentions in signing up for these mass viewing services. I’m especially flabbergasted by the “creative marketing” firms that use this tactic; how creative can your marketing be if you’re paying another company to troll for likes?

In the grand scheme of things, bots viewing your story seems like a minor inconvenience, like walking through a swarm of gnats. Those concerned about privacy can make their entire Instagram accounts private or curate a “close friends” list and post stories viewable only to those on the list. But the practice illustrates how easy it is to game Instagram, and after the company announced plans last November to crack down on “inauthentic likes, follows, and comments,” it’s unclear how it will take action on this new type of inauthentic engagement in Stories. “We’ve been working hard to reduce fake likes, follows, and comments from Instagram,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “In the coming months, we’ll introduce new measures to reduce fake story views as well.” Until then, I hope the bots enjoy watching my mediocre selfies and dog videos.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.