John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
“Follower” offers the unique experience of being obsessively spied upon.
The feeling of eyes on your back, a glimpse of somebody ducking behind a corner, the snick of a camera as it sneaks your picture—these unsettling experiences could be yours, if you join a service that assigns a stranger to surreptitiously observe you all day long.
Follower is the ultimate “social network” for people who aren’t satisfied with random attention on Twitter and want anonymous relationships to extend into the physical realm, too. “Don’t go unnoticed,” is its tagline. “Follower is a service that grants you a real-life Follower for a day. A no-hassle unseen companion, someone that watches, someone that sees you, someone who cares.”
And critically, someone you won’t see and probably will never meet. Here’s how it works: Use this this form to explain why you want and deserve to be tailed. If it’s accepted, you’ll download an iPhone app and send a headshot to a Follower. This murky individual will then use your phone’s GPS to track you around New York while you attend to your day—answering phones at work, shopping for take-out sushi, picking up your dog’s poop or whatever. At some point the Follower will notify you the hunt’s off, sending you a voyeuristic photo of yourself and dissolving into the night.
Follower is the creation of Lauren McCarthy, a 28-year-old artist, faculty member at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and so far the only Follower. “I didn’t want to run the safety risk of having to distinguish earnest Follower from creeper,” says McCarthy, though she adds the idea of a “hypothetical future where people are algorithmically matched similar to a dating site, but to follow rather than date, is really intriguing.”
Follower’s existence owes much to conceptual madman Vito Acconci, who in 1969 stalked and photographed random New Yorkers until they slipped into their homes. The difference is McCarthy’s subjects are aware of and even welcome the privacy invasion—fitting, given so much of our time is now spent sharing baby-diaper updates, inflammatory political opinions, and sweaty gym selfies. (Another difference: Acconci once staged a performance where he masturbated under a gallery floor while audibly fantasizing about the visitors above. McCarthy keeps things PG.)
The service also questions the worth of cultivating an online audience when, hey, maybe having a minion nearby obsessing over your every move might be enough. “There are sites you can go to to buy online followers—$10 can get you 1,000 followers,” McCarthy says. “But is that desire really fulfilled by watching your follower count tick upward? Could a real-life follower provide something more meaningful or satisfying?”
The fact that about 30 New Yorkers have signed up to be followed later this month suggests “yes,” as do the reasons people have given to be followed. Some have expressed a “desire for connection or support,” McCarthy says, others have claimed they “want to tell or show me some sort of story.” So what are some of the things she’s learned while keeping to the shadows like a Cold War spy?
Well, let her explain it with this description of a January Follower performance in San Francisco involving 15 people:
The first moment of catching sight of my followee was always really exhilarating and surreal. I tried to maintain the right distance from the person so that they might begin to notice me by the end of the day if they paid close attention, so they could have a similar strange and surreal experience. I don’t want it to be a complete thought experiment. If the person feels they have the chance of seeing me, I hoped it might further heighten their awareness. I loved the moments where I could be sitting one table over eating soup with them, wondering if they were wondering if I was their Follower.
Some people I would follow on long walks and adventures, while others would go straight to their office and never leave while I sat outside the building thinking about them, watching them move from room to room on the map on my phone.
One interesting thing was comparing this to the experience of following someone online. In that space, people say and post things in hopes of getting reactions from people, and often it all feels quite mundane. ... In contrast, while following someone, so much of my attention was on them, and every little gesture felt interesting and meaningful. I wasn’t googling every fact ever posted about them online, I was instead watching them interact with a cashier, look for a place to sit on the BART, or choose something to eat, and trying to extrapolate a whole person from that.
There was a point where I lost someone when he walked into a movie theater. Standing in front of the showtimes, I felt sure I could guess which movie he’d gone into. But that sure feeling was similar to the feeling when you buy a lottery number, you think you know just because you want to believe you do. I ended up going back three times to buy different tickets and not finding him in any of the theaters!
With all this work she’s put into being a fly on the wall, does McCarthy one day hope to reverse positions and become followed? “I’d like to be!” she says. “Maybe I’ll recruit someone to fill my Follower role for a day so I can try it out myself. But being the Follower is quite intense in itself, so I’m satisfied to focus on this right now.”