The Creepy Stranger

Columnist Janet Kornblum on following someone's Instagram. 

Mar 3, 2020, 12:16 am*

Internet Culture

Janet Kornblum 

Janet Kornblum

When I saw that my niece had joined Instagram, I did what any normal red-blooded aunt would do: I started following her. You’re welcome, Sarah Semon (she gave me permission to out her and thereby be publicly connected to me; brave woman). No matter that she didn’t follow me back. Being a pesky aunt can be a one-way street. And I’m okay with that.

Let me be clear, however: Instagram is different than say, Facebook. When I first signed up for Facebook, long before most everyone else was on it, I had to promise a few of my nephews and nieces that if I friended them, I would not actually look at their pages. (All that changed when newsfeed came along and started dumping their information in front of my face—but that’s a different story.) I know this is controversial, but I see Facebook as a place for people who  at least kind of know each other. Facebook is more personal than Instagram. You say stuff about yourself. You write about your life. And, once you figure out how, you can actually control who sees your posts. For the moment, anyhow. Twitter, on the other hand, is nothing but a popularity contest. Oh come on. You know it is. Anybody can follow anyone’s tweets. No offense to anyone out there, but frankly I don’t necessarily want to see what a 14 year old is tweeting about. Just as they probably don’t want to see what I’m tweeting about.

But Instagram? It’s a whole different animal. It’s visual. It’s pictures. It’s storytelling. It’s definitely pictures that you want everyone to see. It’s twitter-like in that way—that it’s public—but it’s much warmer and more personable. You know. Pictures of cats and dogs. Yes, I’m one of those people and proud of it. Because my animals are cute. Right? And yes, I have liked your adorable shih tzu photos back. Even loved them. I also enjoy those moody shots of brick walls and birds in the sky. And now, seeing my just-post college niece, Sarah, hanging out with her friends.

It’s like having her share her pictures with me. Except not personally with me. But since I use my own real name on all my social media—she could see it was me. And I thought she approved, having heard nothing to the contrary. I guess this is a fine line. I don’t think, of course—and as my niece points out to me—that you actually need permission to follow anyone or be followed; it’s the name of the game. Still, I respect the younger people in my life when they perhaps want a bit of distance from relatives.

But there she was, with a set of friends: some guys hanging out in plaid shirts (probably a Halloween thing); a cute blond girl flanked by two basketball dudes; a picture of donuts; some young women looking like they’re ready for the prom.

I touched the little heart below the pictures and it immediately beat red. Each time it felt like I was showing her my love. See Sarah? I’m liking your pictures! I didn’t know these friends, but I wanted to make it clear that I liked them. I was not, truly, trying to be the hip and cool aunt. I wanted to friend them, to communicate with them, in the way that they understood.

And like most people, Instagram is something I do while doing something else. You know, that art of partial attention thing.

Then, at some point not long after, she posted more pictures of herself and her buddies. I liked it again. I saw lots of faces. I didn’t know them, but that wasn’t particularly weird. She lives a few states over. Why would I know all her friends?

Another photograph was posted, and another; many group shots, many of what looked like teens (or a bit older) hanging out. I started noticing that there was one face being posted more than others. And it looked kind of self-portraity.

Suddenly the thought struck me: why isn’t Sarah in any of her own photos? While I usually focus on animals and scenery, even I, an official dinosaur, occasionally post silly self portraits. Or people post them of me and tag me. So I clicked over to her profile—and was jazzed to see she had a link to her Tumblr, right after her one word “sup,” an expression that my own niece taught me years before while IMing.

So I looked. It was a cool Tumblr. Very cool.

Except. Except, well except, this didn’t seem like the Sarah I knew. I mean, some of it was. Because my Sarah is one of the coolest people I know. Like the title, “slightly misunderstood.” That seemed very Sarah. But the rest? Where were the pictures of her?

Then—facepalm—it hit me. Those pictures? They were of the woman who had created this Tumblr. And it certainly was *not* my Sarah.

OMG, I was following the *wrong* Sarah.

This poster had the same name as my niece (a name that is not that common). She was about the same age (college), and even came from the Midwest. But she was decidedly not my niece.

I was mortified. Suddenly, I realized what it looked like from the outside: I had become a stalker. I was that dreadful older person who thought she was cool, following the younger person not only on her Instagram but  on her blog as well.

I felt kind of dirty.

Deeply embarrassed, I immediately un-friended her and un-followed her. Maybe I overreacted. I mean, the Internet is a public place. But I wasn’t just looking. I was liking. And commenting. Sometimes I still wonder—did she ever notice? And what did she really think about the middle-aged unknown person following her, liking her photos? Perhaps she think she’s so interesting, becoming so famous that it is now entirely understandable that people she’s never met would start following her every online move. And perhaps that’s completely true.

Or perhaps she just thought I was just some creepy stranger.

Janet Kornblum is a journalist, writer, media trainer and addicted to Instagram. If you “like” one of her photos @jkornblum, she promises she’ll respect you in the morning. You can contact her at [email protected]

Photograph by zenera

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*First Published: Nov 29, 2012, 2:42 pm