"Your follower is now following you. ... You may not see them, but they are there, following everything you do."
That's the notification you'll get one morning after signing up for a new app called Follower. A real-life human will follow you around, unseen, for a single day.
Artist Lauren McCarthy created the app-as-performance-art after spending a week looking at a thousand different social media accounts. "I was thinking a lot about why we want followers, and what does that attention do for us," she says. If we have a desire to be seen, she wondered, is being seen in real life even better?
The app is simple. If you want to be followed, you answer two questions—why you want to do it, and why someone should follow you. If chosen to be followed, you download the app. You don't know when it will start, but one morning, you'll get the notification, and another at the end of the day letting you know you're no longer being followed. The follower—McCarthy—sends you a single picture from the day.
"It was unexpectedly intimate and strange," says McCarthy, who just finished testing a beta version of the app in San Francisco. "Like in some way, since I was just focused on them all day and I don't know when they're going to move or where they're going to go, I'd just be watching, and I'd start to form all these ideas about what sort of person they were. I'd have these hypotheses about where they might go next."
In some ways, the experience parallels looking at someone's Instagram account. "There were moments, with some of the people, it almost felt like they were performing for me—they'd sit by a glass window, or they'd have the most action-packed day ever," she says. "And I'd wonder, is this really your life, or are you just trying to seem extra interesting right now?"
The app took weeks to get approval at the App Store, and someone at Apple asked if it was a stalker app. McCarthy says it's the opposite: A stalker gives you unwanted attention; in this case, you're requesting it. She imagines it as part of the gig economy; if you can hire a Taskrabbit to help you build your Ikea furniture or someone from Lyft to give you a ride, why not hire someone to follow you around?
It's meant to raise questions about the lines we draw between privacy and the desire to broadcast every part of our lives online. "It feels like people have such gut reactions to surveillance, and I was just interested in trying to complicate that a little bit," McCarthy says.
"For privacy and surveillance, there's levels—like you don't want the government seeing you in your bedroom, but you don't mind your partner seeing you," she says. "And so where's that line? Could your friends read your email? Could your mother? Could a stranger follow you on the street? All these relationships are kind of different. I think we tend to think of surveillance as this machine, and this kind of black-and-white thing, and I think it's more a negotiation of relationships and power."