Todd, a 28-year-old data analyst from Memphis, is telling me about how he created a special account on Instagram just for lurking. “I made the account private, screen-shotted a cute girl’s photo from Tinder for the profile picture and created a separate email address so Facebook won’t link my account with the fake [Instagram] one,” he explains. “I posted a bunch of generic photos so that the account would look active, then I followed a bunch of spammy ad accounts who immediately followed back in order to look like I had real followers.”
The point of all this? “It was for stalking private accounts of guys that I thought this girl I was previously sleeping with was now interested in, months after stuff between me and her had ended,” he explains. “I wanted to see if she was liking or commenting on their stuff.” It was necessary to create a separate, lurking account, Todd adds, because following these men on his main account would have raised suspicion.
In recent years, there has been much media commentary about the phenomenon of the “finsta,” a secondary, usually private, Instagram account where users post more personal material and accept only close friends as followers. But a stealthier cousin is on the rise: the lurking account — or “lurksta” — used solely for the purpose of viewing posts, stories and activity that users don’t want partners, friends, family or coworkers to know about.
Adam, a 29-year-old marketer from Canada, is a prototypical example. He has a locked account with no followers, a username he chose by “picking random phrases until one was free” and a profile picture that’s a shot of Post Malone he found on Google. He tells me he uses the account to lurk “halfway porn accounts and girls I find attractive who post more provocative pictures.” Like many of the other men I spoke to for this piece, Adam is concerned with hiding his activity from his girlfriend. “I’ve never used it to message anyone or cheat on my girlfriend or anything,” he tells me. “I just know if I followed those pages on my regular account, it might make her feel bad, and I don’t want that.”
This might seem like a pretty elaborate scheme to merely avoid hurt feelings, but over the past few years, digital media commentators have become preoccupied with the topic of straight men double-tapping other women’s photos when they’re in a relationship, and where this lies on the infidelity scale. And so, many men tell me that they created lurksta accounts after their girlfriends criticized them for liking other women’s pictures or following Instagram models. “I have a lurking account that I started around four years ago because my significant other was jealous of the less than 10 or so Insta model types I followed at the time,” says Joe, a 33-year-old lawyer from Houston. “Once we started dating, she went through who I followed on Twitter and Insta and asked about all the women.” He says she reviewed the whole list, including likes; to circumvent prying eyes, he created the lurking account about two or three months into the relationship.
While many men use lurkstas primarily to follow hot, half-naked women, not all of them are hiding this activity from their significant others. Some simply feel that it’s a little uncouth to have feeds filled with thirst traps and follow lists full of hundreds of Instagram models, and are hiding their horny follows and likes from family, friends and coworkers. Sean, a 29-year-old business consultant in Pittsburgh, is single, but tells me he doesn’t want his social explore page filled with pictures of undressed women. When I ask why, he says, “shame and privacy. It’d be embarrassing if someone saw my browsing habits and made fun of them.” He adds, too, that it’s awkward to check out these women at work or in public. “It would be like reading Playboy at your desk,” he explains.
A less common (but still not uncommon) reason for using lurkstas is to keep up on the activity of an ex, similar to Todd’s scenario. Luis, a 27-year-old accountant from Las Vegas, says, “I don’t interact with [my ex] or do anything crazy, I’m just genuinely curious,” he says. “She blocked my regular account so I created this one.” He explains that it’s a locked account on which he follows roughly “six random fake accounts named ‘xxkkdga’ that don’t post any content so it looks legit,” with a “generic name + fake last name initial + fake area code” for the username. Luis tells me his ex mostly posts dog pics and makeup tutorials.
Todd and Luis both realize their behavior is a bit objectionable. When I ask Luis why he felt compelled to check in on his ex after being broken up for more than two years, he responds that he was “just being a creep, I guess.” Todd says he only felt compelled to share his story of stalking men his ex was interested in “because of how nuts it seems in hindsight.”
Sometimes, though, the lurking activity is relatively wholesome, and it’s the judgmental eyes of conservative family and friends that are the problem. Sam, a 23-year-old social media manager in Australia, tells me that they use a separate lurking Instagram to keep up with LGBTQ+ celebrities, news and history accounts, as well as body positivity and fat acceptance accounts. “I’m not ashamed of anything I view on my burner account,” they explain. “But there are some family members and coworkers who I don’t want to have conversations about my gender identity and sexuality with, so I avoid that altogether by keeping my ‘edgier’ activity and following list completely separate from my main account.”
They add: “Sometimes you just don’t need your homophobic uncle seeing that side of your life, y’know?”