We all have them — those people we check in with on a daily basis. We know what haircuts they're sporting and where they went on their last vacation. We know where they brunched last weekend, what their latest shoe purchase looks like and perhaps have even seen slivers of their homes.
We've also never met them.
These virtual BFFs are the ones we meet on Instagram, a collective regular cast of beautiful strangers who grow integral to our daily routines. To pass a week without their aspirational hashtags or well-lit selfies leaves us disoriented.
Somewhere between "Facebook stalking" becoming the norm and flakiness pushing our real friends out of our daily routines, a new crop of anonymous "friends" started getting our undivided attention and time — and started shaping our own outlooks on life — without them even knowing it.
Facebook stalking has now been replaced by lifestyle stalking.
Aspirational fixations: With its wealth of editing tools, Instagram is littered with perfectly crafted images that suggest an authentic slice of life just out of reach. We dutifully follow accounts that simultaneously tap into our longing for unattainable perfection and provide us tips and insights on how to get it. These include everything from color-coordinated outfits and gourmet meals to chic home decor and even #relationshipgoals.
"I go through different phases, but normally it's always a female with cool clothes or style that I admire," Natalia told Mic.* "I like to imagine a world in which they would also be interested in what I've been up to."
Clara, like many Instagram users, stalks the lives of fitness people, checking in on their accounts one to two times a day. She described her favorite accounts to Mic: "Girls who are insane about exercising and love gloating about their bodies and what they eat to maintain that look."
"One girl who my friend went to college with is now a bodybuilder, and I have a total obsession with her," Emily, a "stalker" of both the Kardashians and friends of friends, told Mic. Emily checks in with her bodybuilder's feed a few times a week.
"It feels similar to looking through People magazine. I just love trashy magazines and this seems like a shortcut to that," she said. "I feel like I 'know them' and I just like to know what's going on with them."
Keeping tabs on other people is one of the fundamental purposes of social media. But whereas we check in on old friends and acquaintances on Facebook out of nostalgia or (shamefully) schadenfreude, we look to Instagram for people living lives more awesome than ours, regardless of whether we know them or not.
Fittingly, the Cut publishes a recurring column called "I Like This Bitch's Life" that highlights the physiques, outfits and careers of women who, at least through social media, seem to possess enviable lifestyles. "Lifestyle writing is all about aspiration, which is code for making people envy you and shop accordingly ... the Cut bitterly admits that it's working," the site writes.
Escaping into a better life: While these feeds can serve as daily motivation, they also offer an element of escapism that makes the aspirational accounts so addictive. Andrew, 25, stalks women from Tinder who post their Instagram names in their bios, a behavior he calls "the grossest thing I do."
With a total of three dozen women he keeps social tabs on, his virtual voyeurism is a source of entertainment. "I have a boring part-time job on weekends, so I check on them then. It brightens my day when I see a new bikini modeling pic," Andrew said.
"I think it's the modern-day version of escapism," Natalia said. "It's the same reason I go to movies — imagining, or really feeling, an emotional experience outside of my own reality."
The downside of lifestyle stalking: Aspiration and envy, unfortunately, are close cousins. When Andrew's scanning through photos of scantily clad women, he said, what's driving him is really "salivating horniness mixed with resentment fueled by both unobtainability and class, like, 'Who is paying for you to go on vacation every three weeks?'"
There's nothing like hours of monitoring of Mayfair-filtered feeds to leave us feeling lame or resentful about our own lives. "Intrigue and jealousy definitely drive my behavior," Clara said.
As Rebecca, 25, said to Mic about the lifestyle blogger Taza, "This woman's the closest thing to a mommy blogger I follow, and she makes me feel so bad about my life." Indeed, studies have shown that when Facebook photos brings out the green-eyed monster in us, we can sink into a depression. It's no surprise that filtered photos of tanned limbs and artisanal cheese would make us even more envious.
"You get more explicit and implicit cues of people being happy, rich and successful from a photo than from a status update," Hanna Krasnova of Humboldt University Berlin, co-author of a study on Facebook's impact on envy, told Slate in 2013. "A photo can very powerfully provoke immediate social comparison."
Despite the crappy feelings, there's a reason we keep scrolling: We're addicted. Numerous studies have demonstrated social media's addictive qualities, each red flag and orange notification setting off the reward centers in our brain. Instagram heightens this impact by stripping away all the extra content and giving us what we really want: the photos. According to Harvard professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, 70% of all actions on social media are related to viewing other people's pictures and profiles.
Friends we'll never meet: The constant digital fascination may be highly addictive and envy-inducing; to fully enjoy the photos we stalk, we need to separate the reality from the filter.
"Their pictures relay a sense of confidence, good style, fun times, but I also can look at my own Instagram and know the pictures I'm posting and the public image I'm creating for myself is different from my reality too," Natalia said. "How many times have I posted a picture from a night that looks like 'one for the ages' but honestly was mediocre?"
If we can manage to keep some perspective and not let the aspirational lifestyles bring us down, then these auxiliary relationships can actually be a positive addition to our lives — people who offer us new perspectives, but will never flake and don't ask for anything in return besides the occasional "like." They may just be the most thoroughly modern relationships we have. They're certainly the prettiest.
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.