A new app called Being lets you to jump behind the wheel of the Instagram feed of a celebrity like Taylor Swift, letting you see what she sees upon logging in. You don’t get her notifications or personal messages, mind you, but you do get to mindlessly scroll the same feed of photos that she (or her personal assistant) also mindlessly scrolls. It gives you a glimpse of what Instagram looks like for someone like Swift (the inside of an Anthropologie store) or Beyonce (who doesn’t follow anyone, so it’s just a feed of her own photos, which could not be more perfect).
The ease of logging in, choosing, say Rihanna, and seeing what she sees is mesmerizing. You start picking up on things. Brands she likes. People she likes (look, there’s Drake!). You’ll choose Kim Kardashian, because why wouldn’t you, and notice her brother Rob’s photos right away—photos of Blac Chyna. You’ll wonder what it feels like to be Kim, checking Instagram and being thrown into the familial drama. What. A. Rush.
That’s the entire premise of Being: to see something through a celebrity’s eyes. At least, it was. Late in the evening on February 25, just one week after Being launched, Instagram pulled its API access without explanation.
“It was just an average evening, around 8 pm. I was making dinner,” says Being creator Adam Mashaal. “And I got an email from a customer saying they couldn’t access the app.” At first, Mashaal thought it was a server hiccup. Being had already experienced such a failure shortly after it launched. The app was so instantly popular that its servers couldn’t keep up. Engineers quickly solved the problem. Mashaal soon realized this wasn’t that and discovered Instagram had revoked access to its API. He sought an explanation and got silence. “I figured even by today they would have reached out to me,” he says. “Nothing.”
Instagram says it cannot offer any specific information, but says it did restrict Being’s access because of a policy violation and alerted his team. A week later, the situation hasn’t changed, and Being remains dormant. But it is merely the latest app to capitalize on the intersection of celebrity obsession and Internet creeping. There almost certainly will be more apps like Being that give you a sense of what it’s like being a celebrity.
Live and die by the API
Where Being almost certainly ran afoul of Instagram’s policy is hosting a feed beyond the official Instagram app. As of November, third-party apps that display an Instagram user’s feed are verboten. Instagram said it wanted to give people “control over their content and set up a more sustainable environment built around authentic experiences on the platform.” In other words, Instagram wants to keep the Instagram experience inside Instagram. Developers are welcome to do things that build on that experience (think of all the Insta-printing apps) but repurposing the feed is off limits.
Which is for all intents exactly what Being was doing: It’s not your Instagram feed, but it’s still a feed. Mashaal argues Being was different because it was not simply repurposing Instagram’s feeds. It also allowed users to interact: Whenever you Liked something on Being, you Liked it on Instagram (Being asked you to log in with your Instagram account); if you followed someone on Being, you did so on Instagram. It was driving engagement to Instagram proper, he says. It’s not a totally valid position, but it distances itself from the original product a bit. When I asked why Mashaal thinks the API was pulled, it’s clear he remains dumbfounded. “I could begin to guess and spin my wheels a bunch, but I’m still blindsided and shocked by the whole thing,” he says.
It should be noted that you can manually accomplish what Being does on your own. It would tedious, but you could make a list of all the accounts a celebrity follows, then create a mirror account that follows them all. Toggling between your personal profile and these celebrity fake profiles would be easy, thanks to Instagram’s new account switching feature. But, of course, that takes a quantity of time and patience that only a truly committed stalker possesses.
Peak Celebrity Peek
API woes aside, there’s inarguably an appetite for what Being delivered. Glu Mobile, the firm behind the Kim Kardashian app game, Kendall and Kylie Jenner app game, and forthcoming titles featuring Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and Gordon Ramsey (?!) understands this. While with these games, you play as a character alongside the celeb, getting a dose of their appified, cartoonized world, their success is coming from a place of social media celebrity obsession.
“We’re a society focused on fame, and I think apps are one of the more efficient ways of providing that connection,” says Glu CEO Niccolo De Massi. He also points out that while Glu’s titles are more like famous fantasy, they also have real world ties—a popular feature. “When Kim goes to Mexico, we give the players an update from Mexico. We blend the real and virtual world.”
A market is developing around celebrities’ online brands and activity: Think DJ Khaled on Snapchat, the Kardashian app empire, and the endless speculation over what filters and editors celebs use to perfect their Instagram photos. We’re obsessed with celebrities and we’re obsessed with following them online—but we also want to know what they’re doing online, what it’s like to be on an Internet that’s also obsessed with you. Think of the thousands of fan accounts that pretend to be celebs and accrue their own mega-followings, on every single platform. That corner of the market, the one that peeks in and experiences the Internet like a famous person is definitely more invasive than the side that just wants to idly watch and adore its subjects.
De Massi sees Glu’s game model as more tenable than Being’s, which he says is more about eavesdropping than “experiencing” celebrity. But the numbers suggest otherwise: When Being lost access, it had more than 40,000 active users, and even when it wasn’t working it accrued 10,000 new downloads. In just seven days, users had viewed half a million feeds on Being. “It’s all public information and it’s possibly the most authentic form of curation you’ll find today on social media,” says Mashaal. “Who you follow online says more about you than what you’re posting. It really humanizes people across the board, whether it’s your best friend or someone like Taylor Swift or Hillary Clinton.” There can be a bit of an obsessive, maybe stalker-ish quality to wanting to see what it’s like to be someone else—specifically a celebrity—online, though, and while that may yield a lot of downloads, it stands to reason that the famous types behind these accounts might feel it’s invasive.
Being isn’t the first app of its kind to experience strain. ShadowMe let you experience another person’s Twitter feed (yes, including famous people’s accounts) and was wildly popular at launch. Ethan Duff, one of the app’s creators, credits at least some of ShadowMe’s success to what he calls “the ‘creeper’ factor” of peering at somebody else’s online activity. “But we felt no concern with this considering that Twitter’s premise is as an open platform, a soap box,” he says.
There were plenty of use cases for the app, Duff says: jealous teens who want to see who their boy/girlfriends are following, journalists who want a peek inside politician’s feeds, Twitter newcomers who want inside tips from a pro. Eventually, ShadowMe decided to notify users when someone was following them, which Duff described as a semi-controversial feature. ShadowMe, though, was of course at the mercy of the Twitter API, and when Twitter threatened to limit the number of API calls an app could make, it could have seriously impacted the app. “But we founds ways around it,” says Duff.
Technically, ShadowMe is still around, but only for people who downloaded it when it launched; it’s no longer on the App Store. “We created it mostly as a part-time experiment to gauge interest in the concept and learn more about social media technology,” says Duff. At one point, the app was even pitched directly to Twitter as a way to address the network’s new user engagement problems. Twitter’s been known as a hot bed of developer API issues, but Duff says ShadowMe generally did OK navigating that minefield. “We felt very fortunate to be the only app with access to a very specific API which supported the shadowing function.”
While Being hasn’t been as lucky, being stonewalled by Instagram instead, Mashaal has future plans for the app and says he and the team are committed to bringing it back in some form. For now, the app is like a fossil, preserved in its final state: Taylor Swift sits at the top of its leaderboard with 3,000 views.
But surely, Being’s API struggles don’t mark the end of voyeuristic social media consumption. Duff asks us to imagine how our obsession with celebrity “will translate to virtual reality… Imagine experiencing the Oscars through the eyes of Kevin Hart or Kate Winslet?” Swiping through someone else’s feed? That’s probably only the beginning.