The idea of being a social media voyeur — watching the lives of others to the point of obsession — is so ingrained in our culture that there are films based around the concept: the premise of the new flick Ingrid Goes West, starring Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, is about a woman invading the life of a girl she's been observing over Instagram. While Plaza's character is clearly meant to be unhinged, the idea of social media observation is a very modern occupation. Once upon a time, those curious about their neighbors had to resort to peeking from behind their blinds. These days, the mundane lives of others are spread out across the internet for our easy consumption — though, of course, they're often carefully curated to hide flaws. It's no secret that people love to snoop on social media, but the reason why may be more biological than technological.
Snooping around on social media can be intentional — looking to see if an ex has a new partner, for example, or whether your relatives are saying offensive things about politics — or simply part of the everyday perusal of your various social media feeds. But the fact that consumption of information about others is an inherent, normalized part of the vastly popular social media experience doesn't surprise evolutionary psychologists at all. And science has revealed interesting things about the ways in which we snoop, what we get out of it, and why social media is part of a much, much older human tradition of innate curiosity about others.
"Mediated Voyeurism" Fills Some Of Our Social Needs
Why do we snoop on others on social media? Scientists have a lot of theories. One is related to voyeurism in general: snooping gives us power. According to a 2014 study on being a voyeur on social media, checking out someone's feed allows the lurker to "learn from others by watching them," without "giv[ing] anything out in return," upsetting the balance of power.
For many of us, however, snooping goes beyond the power of learning information. A 2012 thesis about voyeurism on Facebook in particular found that snooping on others in social media fulfills a lot of our social needs and gratifications. We love looking at the presented lives of friends and strangers, according to that data, because they help us to compare ourselves to others, evaluate our own identities (and possibly feel superior to others), feel a connection to a social group, reassure ourselves about fidelity or friendship, feel more certain about relationships, and be entertained. If you've ever enjoyed scrolling six months back on the Twitter of someone you barely know, the reason why is likely on that list.
But there's more to the picture than just the social roles of voyeurism. Part of our love for social media snooping, scientists argue, is explained by how humans evolved to be naturally curious.
Snooping Feeds Our Evolutionary Curiosity
Our need to find out information about others for our own various social needs and comforts is part of how humans view new information. We are an extremely curious species, and have evolved to highlight that trait and make it crucial to our social and psychological development.
Humans possess a characteristic called neoteny: biologically, we're inherently more child-like than other mammals all through our lives, despite ostensibly growing older and more #adult. Our brains are extremely plastic, capable of absorbing new information and shaping themselves to meet new challenges, a capacity that in many other mammals trails off after childhood. We're also constantly in search of new things to feed that curiosity. In other words, we're very curious, and we actively attempt to garner information about unknown aspects of our world. As neuroscientist Beau Lotto told Quartz, this adaptability has been one of humanity's greatest traits:
"Our world is not static—it’s constantly changing. If we didn’t have a brain that could change with the world, then we would have been selected out a long time ago. In fact, the most successful systems are the ones that are adaptable. Being able to have flexibility in our perception means we can adapt to a changing world."
The fact that humans are innately curious — particularly about other humans — is one of the reasons why social media is so popular, researchers believe. If we didn't possess prefrontal cortexes that rewarded us for novelty and newness, we'd likely fail to see the point in constantly absorbing new information about others. And scientists have found that our curiosity about other people is an inherent part of our social interactions: we build gossip, snooping and information-mining into our social worlds to help us build stronger relationships, figure out complex social codes, and learn whether or not a person can be trusted or helpful. You're not a snoop, you're a highly evolved social researcher.
However, there have been plenty of issues around using social media to fulfill this need. A new EU law has ruled that employers need "legal grounds" before they can poke around on the social media accounts of employees, for instance, and parenting groups are having constant discussions about the ethics of monitoring children's social media posts. For all that it's part of our nature, it also raises thorny questions about privacy and our online selves.
We Prefer To Snoop Than Be Snooped On
Interesting new science released this month has revealed that, as we age, our relationship to our own privacy in relation to voyeurism may shift. A study conducted at Penn State of people aged 55 and older found that many of them liked using Facebook primarily to observe the lives of others — but were extremely wary of what those people would be able to view about them.
As it happens, we're often inclined to lurk than we are to engage with others or post about ourselves. A 2012 study of online communities found that only 10 percent of users ever posted at all. That leaves a whopping 90 percent failing to interact or provide any information about themselves. On apps like Instagram or Facebook, where users are expected to maintain some kind of presence or information about themselves to be able to observe others, the number of lurkers may well be lower (though statistics are lacking). It's possible that the rewards of exhibitionism — of putting every brunch, every vacation online for all to see — are fewer than the rewards of consuming all of those experiences secondhand.
Social media sites are often designed with a kind of quid pro quo in mind: post about yourself and your cute puppy, and in return you get to feed your voyeuristic urge to learn about the lives of others. For many of us, though, it seems that we're much happier absorbing information about our acquaintances than attaching hashtags to a post about our cute lunch. But if your propensity to snoop has you concerned, don't worry. It's just human nature.