Why is it so tempting to rewatch your own Instagram Story?
Open Instagram and you're guaranteed a trove of new Stories to watch. You'll probably tap through a few, but it's likely that the story you watch most isn't someone you follow at all. It's your own.
For better or for worse (probably both), Stories have fundamentally changed the way people use the platform. The feature, which was originally a blatant rip-off of Snapchat Stories, gave users an unfussy alternative to the curated glamour of the grid. Now, they can post chiller stuff on Stories even if they don't necessarily want it to stay online forever. After all, Stories disappear after 24 hours.
But while Stories may have changed the way we share things on Instagram, it didn't change one of the big reasons we're there in the first place: the confidence boost that comes with looking good for others.
Grace, a 17-year-old student in Tennessee, said in an interview that she often finds herself rewatching her own Stories, particularly ones that include a picture of her. "I guess I just care a little more about what people are thinking about a picture of me [and] who has seen it," she said. When she rewatches those stories, she explained, "I'm obsessing over if the picture is good or not." When she uploads poems or photos that aren't hers, however, she doesn't notice herself rewatching at all.
A propensity for rewatching doesn't necessarily need to be about your own appearance, though. Joey, a 28-year-old furniture maker in Boston, Massachusetts, says he's most likely to rewatch Stories where he's shared his solo pursuits: a meal he's made, a walk he's taken, a view he's seen. Images of himself aren't a factor. In fact, he said he's never posted a picture of his own face.
He doesn't feel the same impulse to rewatch when he posts Stories of his friends, however. "I already know they're watching and responding," he said. "Also I might still be with those friends, so I'm distracted."
Jon, a 30-year old account executive in Birmingham, Alabama, said he watches his own Story often — over 20 times per day on some days. Unlike Grace, though, he's most likely to rewatch a Story if it involves video or music. "It's basically a Hit Clip," he said.
I, for my part, watch my own Story all the time, especially if I think it's good. If I really think about it, I'm imagining myself as a viewer: happening upon my extremely good story, feeling surprised at how wonderful it is, then smiling with deep satisfaction at my mastery of the platform. Is it just another photo of soup in dim apartment lighting? Yes. But I loved making the soup, and I felt excited to share it, and I want the people looking at it to be excited too. When I think about people enjoying the Story, I feel significantly more convinced that my soup endeavor was worthwhile.
A psychologist's analysis
I'm not proud of any of this, but I'm certainly not alone in it. According to Dr. Allison Forti, an assistant professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, the tendency to watch our own fleeting content can be partially explained by a psychological concept called the "looking glass self," which posits that people's sense of self is rooted partially in how they feel they're perceived by others.
"Applied to repeatedly viewing Instagram stories, it is possible that people are viewing how they look and what they said or did to inform their self-identity," she said. "For example, if they watch a story where they determine they look good, were funny or thoughtful, and others would probably rate them positively, they might repeatedly view that story to reinforce a positive aspect of their identity in which they have value, worth, and other people accept them."
That's certainly the case with my soup posts. Even though I eat cheese and crackers for dinner while sitting sideways on a kitchen chair as often as I make meals from scratch, knowing how to cook is a venerated quality — it reads as "good" to pretty much everyone, especially in the age of viral recipes. By watching myself perform my "good' qualities publicly, I'm telling myself that the performance could actually be me. I convince myself that of course I'm someone who would cook elaborate meals, even though I know I'm not and don't, all things considered, feel particularly bad about that. It all comes back to my idea of how people see me.
Dr. Kent Bausman, a professor in the Online Sociology program at Maryville University, links the phenomenon to the sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman, who worked primarily in the mid-20th century, developed the sociological concept of dramaturgy: that life, self, and human interaction can be understood in terms of actors performing on a stage.
"When we go about our day, when we go into the world and interact with the world, that's our front stage performance. We are giving a performance of ourselves to the world," Bausman explained in an interview. "But when we come home we get off that stage." Goffman referred to that resting state as the "backstage," a place where we process the events of the front stage, either by ourselves or in front of a very different audience.
"Backstage we reflect, we process," Bausman explained. "How did our day go? [It's] that natural reflection that can be done in isolation or in communication with other people, but it tends to be a little bit more informal."
Goffman worked in a time before the internet. But Bausman thinks the ideas of front stage and backstage performances are still applicable to our digital lives — albeit in different terms. It's no longer the case that our public lives are viewable (front stage) and our private lives are not (backstage), he explained, because the internet allows our followers access to some version of our private lives as well. The appeal of Stories — and of why we're fascinated by our own — lies in their backstage characteristics: their naturalness, their flippancy, their rejection of a certain kind of performance.
We've done this since the days of MySpace, of course, but the way we share ourselves online has changed with the platforms. Until recently, Instagram grids favored glossy, curated photos with a unified aesthetic; now many of the platform's biggest stars favor a look that deliberately eschews filters, editing, and manipulation — or the appearance of them, anyway. Bad lighting? Fine. Selfies in dirty mirrors? Sure. Sloppily filmed videos in unkempt bedrooms? Great. It's all meant to be casual and uncontrived.
Stories go hand in hand with this new approach. "[Stories have] that appeal of showing a less polished version" of a public presentation, explained Bausman. On a curated grid, we show a front stage self. On Stories, he said, we're more likely to show a backstage self: looser, more natural, and possibly in a state of temporary reflection. While not a grid-Stories split, Joey's Stories mirror this idea: His Stories with friends reflect social, front stage moments, while his solo Stories focus primarily on the self he performs when he is alone.
(It's also true, of course, that the "unfiltered" self we share on things like Stories, finstas, and private pages aren't 100 percent devoid of performance. Pointedly "relatable" content is one example.)
When we then watch our own Stories back, we're doubling down on that reflective state — not just for our followers, but for ourselves. Like the Story, the reflective state doesn't last forever, but it does allow us insight into a self that would be inaccessible through a more classically performative presentation. That's appealing, Bausman explained, in part because users — especially younger ones — are increasingly wary of their own online footprint.
"This isn't a permanent record," he said. "It's a way for me to reflect again on the presentation of myself in the virtual world."
But is watching my own Story ... bad?
All this doesn't mean, necessarily, that your particular fondness for watching your own Stories matches either of these interpretations. People watch their own Stories for technical reasons all the time — Joey, for instance, likes to rewatch Stories where he's timed music to video to make sure the timing is perfect. (After that, though, he does do a few rewatches strictly to "enjoy the results.") And, as The Verge addressed in a 2017 episode of the podcast Why'd You Push That Button? (a must-listen if you interested in this subject), the impulse can come down to something simple, like feeling bored and seizing an opportunity for nostalgia.
But it never hurts to look deeper — especially if you find yourself watching your own Story an amount that feels like too much. Luckily, you can take measures to curb the habit if it's not working for you.
According to Dr. Forti, the key is self-compassion. "Rather than repeatedly view Instagram stories to boost a positive self-identity, consider directing compassion toward yourself and all of your perceived shortcomings or failures," she said. She recommends self-compassion exercises like meditation or journaling — tiny steps to help you develop a gentler way of looking at yourself without resorting to an artificial self-esteem boost.
I, for one, could probably use a little more self-compassion and a little less time spent staring at my own soup photos. You, however, should look at my soup photos. Not to brag, but I make really delicious soup, and I could really use the views.
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March 17, 2020 at 01:25PM