Thave broken. I know they’ve broken up because I haven’t seen him on his Instagram Stories in weeks, and he usually doesn’t go two days without holding his mustache or flicking it with his pint of hashtag. Okay, there are still photos of him on their main feed, granted, sure, that could mean they’re still together. But look, look: he just posted his dinner. Meat tacos. He’s a vegetarian, remember? She never ate meat when she was with him.
Above is the embarrassing inner monologue of an amateur internet detective or, to put it less glamorously, me when I’m snooping into the (sort of) private lives of my Instagram friends. This is not something I do deliberately, but rather a thought process that arises when my thumb performs its displacement exercises at the end of the day. Psychologists recognize that humans are forced to look for patterns; something inside us seems to also love to search for clues. The popularity of mystery novels and true crime documentaries has long been a testament to our desire to play detective, but it is the internet that has transformed us all into amateur investigators.
Of nosy neighbors in Beside For the obsessives on gossip forums, anti-vaccines on Facebook, or moral arbiters on Twitter, more and more people seem to spend their time online researching and deducing, looking for clues about other people’s lives. The trend is almost as old as the World Wide Web itself: In 1995, an American theater director named Tom Arriola started a website called Crime Scene, inviting the public to search case documents to help solve a murder. Although Arriola simply posed as “Detective Ted Armstrong” and his story of a brutally murdered student was purely fictional, many early Internet users enthusiastically believed that the case was real. Ironically, the amateur investigation exposed Arriola’s game – a woman who had spent four (then expensive) hours on her website later. called the real local police department he had referenced to confirm that the crime was fictitious.
Since then, tracking true crimes online has become more common: in 1999, the Websleuths forum was launched to allow ordinary people to discuss unsolved cases. In 2013, Reddit users infamously tried to find the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing and misidentified student Sunil Tripathi, bombarding his family with distressing phone calls. However, although these stories are familiar (so much so that last year New York magazine was able to publish a story titled “Seven Times Internet Detectives Got the Wrong Boy”), Less attention is paid to how to play detective has seeped into the everyday experiences of Internet users.
First: the fun stuff. Finding clues is a big part of celebrity culture online; Taylor swift can capitalize random letters in a social media post inviting fans to find out the release date of his latest album. On a smaller scale, in mid-April I saw subscribers to a popular YouTuber collect screenshots of her nails to discover the next shades of your new nail polish collection. It’s harmless fun, but amateur research can easily take a darker turn.
Fans involved in the #FreeBritney movement, for example, have scrutinized Britney Spears’ Instagram looking for clues to her well-being, leading to bizarre dances in which posters write, “If you need help, wear yellow in your next video,” and then flies into a frenzy when Spears wears a yellow top. Arguably a line can be drawn from clues that celebrities deliberately drop to unwanted signals and fans they falsely identify. Take YouTuber’s 2016 Case Marina Joyce: Apparent bruises on her arms and a gun in the background of one of her videos led viewers to speculate that she had been abducted by the Islamic State (needless to say, she didn’t. Later, her mother called the incident “Something peculiar that we both don’t even understand.”)
Celebrity conspiracies are just that: conspiracies. The same behavior that takes place on devoted fan accounts also occurs on Facebook groups dedicated to vaccine misinformation and 5G fears. Talk to any of these theorists and they will tell you that they have done their own research; Admittedly, many have spent hours reviewing documents, memes, and videos online. The Internet has democratized detective work by allowing us greater access to information than ever before: unfortunately, it has become more difficult to know what is deliberately misleading or what is real and what is not, and many of us do not stop to question the source of apparent truths.
Whatever the online space, digital detectives are extrinsically rewarded with likes and comments. But something else is at stake: Online research seems to quench a deeper and more natural curiosity about other people. You no longer need to be a superfan or a true crime enthusiast to be seduced by the hunt for clues, especially since many of them are removed every day as people continue to post about their lives online. This phenomenon is now so common that even those who don’t play detective can often find themselves watching from the sidelines.
Speculation is rife and seemingly unavoidable on social media, and it is not always easy to determine when digital detection crosses the line; In the past, online detectives have. helped solve crimes and law enforcement agencies appreciated his efforts. But equally, lives have been ruined when billboards point the finger at the wrong guy. I will never shake the haunting memory of a 62-year-old Twitch streamer sobbing in 2016 after a mob falsely accused him of being a pedophile: even now, I can’t hit play again on the video.
Many online investigation cases are much less serious than this, but that doesn’t really mean that you need to pause someone’s Instagram story to analyze their potential breakup. And yet it’s hard to see how I, or indeed anyone, will stop: the internet has compounded our natural inclination to hunt for clues and rewards us with a hum of pride when we put the puzzle together (they had broken! That!) . It has led us to think that we can solve something without stopping to wonder if it is our job to solve it in the first place. The habit will only become more ubiquitous the more people share – as if the entire internet is slowly merging into one giant, neglected detective agency.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism