“Ghosting” may have been added to Urban Dictionary in 2006, but in theory, people ghosted long before texting: by not calling back, not showing up to a date, not responding to a carrier pigeon. I, however, am in the midst of a dating phenomenon that could only occur in the age of social media.
I started dating a man — let’s call him Tyler — a few months ago. We met on Tinder, naturally, and after our first date, we added each other on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. After our second date, he stopped answering my texts. I soon gathered it was over, but in the ensuing days, I noticed he was watching every single one of my Instagram and Snapchat stories — and was often one of the first people to do so.
A couple of weeks later, after still no correspondence, I decided to unfollow/unfriend Tyler from all three social platforms. On Facebook and Snapchat, that meant we could no longer see each other’s content, but on Instagram, no such luck.
It’s now been over two months since we’ve spoken, and Tyler not only still follows me on Instagram, he looks at every single one of my stories. This is not ghosting. This is orbiting.
The more I described Tyler’s behavior to friends, the more I realized how prevalent this kind of thing was. I dubbed it “orbiting” during a conversation with my colleague Kara, when she poetically described this phenomenon as a former suitor “keeping you in their orbit” — close enough to see each other; far enough to never talk.
My friend Vanessa* recently opened up about a similar experience in an email with the subject line: “SO LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THIS DUDE.” She described going on a few “lovely dates” with a guy before he told her he wasn’t interested. She was fine with that, except for one small detail: “He still looks at every single [one of my] Instagram stories to the point where he shows up at the top of the list every time.”
(Instagram has never released why some people continually show up at the top of story views, but some Redditors have sniffed out that it could be indicative of those who lurk your profile the most, which would make Vanessa’s observation even more vexing. This is just speculative, though.)
“He even responds to pictures that I’ll post of my family. And he’ll favorite and respond to my tweets too,” she wrote. Vanessa admits there’s been written correspondence — a tweet reply here, a “haha” comment there — but largely, this man is in her orbit, seemingly keeping tabs on her with with no intention of engaging her in meaningful conversation or, you know, dating her.
“Orbiting is the perfect word for this experience,” she wrote, “because right now I’m so annoyed I wish I could launch him straight into space.”
As it turns out, this frustration isn’t limited to women. Philip Ellis, a writer who lives in the U.K., has been “orbited” as well: “I’m super familiar with orbiting,” Philip told me in an email. “Guys seem to do it when they want to keep their options open, which is a common theme with online dating.”
So why do people orbit? What’s the impetus for this half-assed pseudo form of ghosting?
Theory #1: It’s a Power Move
Philip believes orbiting takes on extra nuance in the gay male community. “I also think with gay guys there’s the added layer of belonging to a smaller community where everybody knows each other, even if only through Instagram — so maybe maintaining a presence on the periphery of somebody’s profile is a diplomatic measure?”
Philip also theorizes that there’s a strategic move behind orbiting, describing it as “a not very subtle way of letting them know you’re still on friendly terms, and that you’ll still say hi when you inevitably see them at the bar. It’s kind of like how you stay friends with your cousin on Facebook for the sake of Christmas and Easter gatherings.”
Taylor Lorenz, social media reporter at The Daily Beast who has written about how Instagram affects modern relationships, also believes that orbiting may be a calculative action: “You want to keep someone on the table or don’t want to totally write someone off,” she says of why someone might orbit. “You’d [maybe] want to slide into their DMs but don’t actively want to engage.”
Taylor, like Philip, suggests that this is a pattern among men. She says, “I feel like it’s guys’ way of keeping you in their ‘book of women.’ I block anyone who does that. You don’t get the privilege to watch my quality content and not text me back!”
Theory #2: They Have No Idea What They’re Doing
I can’t help but wonder whether some people, like Tyler, simply don’t know the ramifications of their actions. Perhaps he doesn’t know I can see that he’s viewing my stories.
This isn’t a particularly scientific measure, but: The question “can someone see that I viewed their instagram story if we are not friends” yields tens of millions of results on Google. (Instagram doesn’t categorize followers as “friends,” but I digress.) Who is googling this?!
Another friend of mine, Alex, has experienced this firsthand. “I was dating this guy — we had been dating for maybe two or three months — when Valentine’s Day came around, and he started ignoring my texts while he was watching my Snapchat stories. I got so mad that I texted him that he better stop watching my stories if he planned to keep ignoring my messages, and he goes, ‘Wait, you can see that?’”
Indeed, The Daily Beast’s Lorenz believes that some people could just be ignorant to that Instagram and Snapchat feature. “It’s amazing how many people don’t know you can see who’s viewed your Instagram story—maybe they just never [checked their own]?”
I, for one, can’t imagine adding a story and just letting it float away in the ether, never checking whether anyone saw it. But that’s just me. Still, this doesn’t explain why they’re looking in the first place. And for those who are liking and commenting, the question of visibility is answered: They know you know. So why?
Theory #3: Fear of Missing Out (on You, an Amazing Person)
“On the surface, ‘orbiting’ seems like relatively unusual behavior,” says Dr. Rachel O’Neill, a licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace provider who specializes in working with relationship issues — especially those involving social media. She proposes a few explanations for why Tyler and others might orbit. “Part of this orbiting behavior is really related to the underlying FOMO. The person might not necessarily be ready to commit to a relationship; however, there’s a concern that if they were to completely eliminate contact with you, then they might miss the opportunity to reconnect with you later on.”
“Social media offers a unique, voyeuristic look into the lives of individuals with whom we have even the most casual of relationships,” O’Neill says. “Orbiting also offers the opportunity for the orbiter to maintain a commitment-free connection with you. If circumstances change (for example, the orbiter decides they want to pursue a relationship), the orbiting behavior also offers a relatively easy entry to return back into your life (i.e., commenting on a post, DMing).”
O’Neill believes, as Lorenz and Philip suggested, that orbiting is a form of keeping tabs on a person — of keeping the option open for a future relationship. “I have to say, I have done it a little bit, but I at least have the decency to do it from a burner account,” Lorenz jokes. “Sometimes you do wanna see what somebody’s up to.”
I admit, the desire to check up on someone you used to know (whether it was platonic or romantic) is strong. I have definitely creeped on people’s social media accounts and even resolved to stop doing it so much for the sake of my mental health.
Creeping, however, is distinct from orbiting. I creep on people I haven’t talked to in a while, but unlike with orbiting, they haven’t reached out to me. Not texting someone back but continuing to look at their social media content almost feels like a betrayal.
Dating is more nuanced than it’s ever been. In a world where we can find a partner at our fingertips and follow their daily lives by just opening an app, it’s tempting to keep up with them, even if we’re not that interested. But orbiting has me stumped; it’s seems a particularly puzzling flavor of creeping. Have you ever orbited? Have you been orbited yourself? I’m eager to crack this code.
Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.