Who Would I Be Without Instagram?

An investigation.

A History of Instagram in Four Acts: The Instagram aesthetic is always evolving. Gevinson and photographer Eva O’Leary reenacted some of its phases. Act I, The Polaroid: Before #nofilter, the filter was the point. Photo: Eva O’Leary. Special thanks to Royal Palms Shuffleboard.
A History of Instagram in Four Acts: The Instagram aesthetic is always evolving. Gevinson and photographer Eva O’Leary reenacted some of its phases. Act I, The Polaroid: Before #nofilter, the filter was the point. Photo: Eva O’Leary. Special thanks to Royal Palms Shuffleboard.
A History of Instagram in Four Acts: The Instagram aesthetic is always evolving. Gevinson and photographer Eva O’Leary reenacted some of its phases. Act I, The Polaroid: Before #nofilter, the filter was the point. Photo: Eva O’Leary. Special thanks to Royal Palms Shuffleboard.

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My senior year of high school, I had three Instagram accounts: a public one, a private one for friends and internet friends, and a private one that was just for me. By this point, I’d had an online audience for six years or so: first for the fashion blog I started when I was 11, and then for Rookie, the online magazine for teenage girls I’d started when I was 15 as an alternative to the getting-a-boyfriend-centric mainstream teen magazines that still existed in 2011.

Posts on my public account were mostly dispatches from my in-person life, which still consisted primarily of going to school every day in Oak Park, Illinois, and editing Rookie when I got home. The private account for friends was more of a place to voice frustrations and petty thoughts. And the private account that was just for me was like if my public one was more shameless: thirstier selfies, pictures with famous people at their homes and dinner parties, souvenirs from the world of wealth and prestige that I’d occasionally been granted access to through my internet fame. These photos felt too obviously desperate and social climb–y for my other accounts, but I wanted to know how it would feel to enhance them with filters, to watch the little blue bar advance as they uploaded, to see these moments framed — or blessed, really — by Instagram’s interface.

I can’t remember exactly how the account came about. I used it for only a week or two and then, regrettably, deleted it — most likely out of shame or a fear of its being somehow discovered. But it feels accurate to say that it was the only thing I made growing up that truly was just for me. Unlike with my diaries, there was no lurking notion of posterity. I would have been horrified if anyone had seen it, rather than like, “OMG, that’s so embarrassing; but what about the prose?” It existed just to scratch an itch, to satisfy the part of myself that had learned to register experience as only fully realized once primed for public consumption, but that was monitored by the other part of myself, the part that knew the actual sharing of these specific moments would appear inauthentic: I’d look too fancy for Rookie and too trying-to-be-fancy to be a real celebrity. So I engaged in this private fantasy of my own public life, just differently packaged — openly shrewd and braggadocian rather than “relatable.”

It’s not that my public account was some highly curated performance. I’ve always thought I could be myself in public pretty easily — by which I mean, speak without second-guessing myself too much on social media, in writing, in interviews. But the memory of my private account tells me I still had a strong instinct for savvy that I couldn’t or wouldn’t admit to myself or anyone. I never considered myself calculating — who does? — and when I did catch glimpses of my own ambition, I thought it was ugly, disgraceful, incongruous with my authentic self, who simply wanted to make things and connect with people and probably, one day, move to the woods.

And yet the rapid-fire stage-mom math I performed in curating my various Instagram accounts was likely instrumental to the presentation of my authentic self that would eventually lead to branded-content deals, acting roles, and my career as I now know it. Rather than some tamped-down impulse, my ability to control how I was seen, to know what to say (and when, and how), was maybe never switched off but an instinct like any other, dovetailing with the many conscious and unconscious decisions that made up all my acts of self-expression. After all, I had been honing my shareability lens for many years before Instagram and already received much praise for “being myself.” Somewhere along the line, I think I came to see my shareable self as the authentic one and buried any tendencies that might threaten her likability so deep down I forgot they even existed.

Where would I be without Instagram? Definitely not in the luxury rental building I was paid to live in and post about for a year back in 2017. Nor in the apartment I moved to when the year was up, as the pay stubs provided to my new landlord were mostly from appearing in ad campaigns that had required posting on Instagram. Without Instagram, it’s possible I wouldn’t have gotten the acting job that moved me to New York, nor the relationships, experiences, and identity that followed. I definitely would have less income and less of an audience to share this essay with.

Who would I be without Instagram? The fact that it’s impossible to parse its exact influence on me indicates that it runs deep. I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagram-less in pastures untouched by the algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside. I can’t tell you exactly what Instagram has done to me, but I can tell you how it has felt to grow up with it.

I got Instagram in 2011, when I was 15, at the same time I got an iPhone. Early on, it felt like a fun, paced-up version of blogging, meant for savoring parts of my real life and peeking into the realities of people unlike me. The more I used it, however, the more I found myself searching for some definitive reality in the way I was perceived by others via comments, likes, and follows. Before Instagram, my faraway audience could be conjured only when I sat at my computer, and it disappeared when I went to school.

With Instagram, self-defining and self-worth-measuring spilled over into the rest of the day, eventually becoming my default mode. If I received conflicting views of my worth or, looking at other people’s accounts, disparate ideas about how to live, the influx of information could lead to a kind of panic spiral. I would keep scrolling as though the cure for how I felt was at the bottom of my feed. I’d feel like I was crawling out of my skin, heartbeat first, for minutes and hours. Finally, I’d see something that made me feel bad enough to put my phone away.

For all my years growing up online, I am still unable to both rapidly and accurately manage so many realities at once: to account for hundreds of people’s feedback in a matter of minutes; to know what to give weight to and what to let go of, what to take at face value and what to read into, what strikes a chord because of a real insecurity I have and what strikes a chord because of a silly insecurity I’ve learned to have, what of other people is authentic or performance or both or neither, and how to catch my brain when it goes to this place. This cycle of judging and being judged is a black hole in which time disappears, in which I and the people I encounter are all frozen in our profiles. It is where I nourish my insecurities over the millions of past versions of me that float around like old yearbook photos and where I still judge people I don’t know for reasons I can’t even remember. Together, we have helped Instagram become its own multibillion-dollar economy: the influencer industry, where people become brands and where brands reach people through other people, fueled by our attempts to solve the great mystery of how one looks in the eyes of another.

There are plenty of well-documented reasons to distrust Instagram — the platform where one is never not branding, never not making Facebook money, never not giving Facebook one’s data — but most unnerving are the ways in which it has led me to distrust myself. After countless adventures through the black hole, my propensity to share, perform, and entertain has melded with a desire far more cynical: to be liked, quantifiably, for an idealized version of myself, at a rate not possible even ten years ago.

I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist. But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.

By the time I had Instagram, I was already used to watching myself multiply. I started my fashion blog in 2008. My friend’s older sister had one and sent me others to read. I wanted to participate. Nearly every day after school, I came home, grabbed my dad’s tripod and family’s digital camera, and took a photo of my outfit, usually in our backyard. Finding the act of posing somewhat embarrassing, I mostly tried to make my face as neutral as possible, or goofy and self-effacing, or occasionally — if it were a film-still-esque shot — emote. Then, using the app PhotoFiltre and the now-defunct website Picnik, I edited the photos, altering the light, the coloring, the implied era. I pasted my face onto scans of old photo-booth strips, passports, and Polaroids. I could repeat it like a Warhol or frame it like CinemaScope. Sometimes my photos were supposed to be of characters, but they were always a way of envisioning myself in times and places that felt more real and more special than our backyard: movies, fashion editorials, a vague idea of the distant past.

I’d had various online avatars since I was little — the cartoon creatures of Neopets and Webkinz, the dolls and celebrities on dress-up-game websites like Barbie and Stardoll, the projections of future me on Sims 2. But with a camera and a blog, I could be my own avatar. I could be myself.

I got to know my own face intimately. I noticed my body changing in these photos before I did in the mirror. (Looking in the mirror was always about my outfit; my body was just a way to wear clothes.) As my blog gained readers and received press, my face began staring back at me from other websites, from magazine covers, from the monitors at talk-show studios, and then from TV. After a childhood of community theater, I used the talent agency that approached me about my writing to start auditioning for movies, and then I saw myself on bigger screens, too. Sometimes it scared me, so I tried to differentiate between the fear of being seen for who I am and the dissociating feeling of being looked at for who I’m not. Mostly, though, I was game: The landscapes I once Photoshopped my way into were materializing around me.

Once my blog started getting readers and press, it was also met with skepticism, with a writer for the Cut even speculating that it was a hoax. Ten years ago, just the idea of a child sharing parts of her life online to an anonymous audience was a novelty. Famous young people were usually musicians, actors, models, athletes — people with corporations and contracts behind them. Few fashion bloggers were monetizing their hobby back then, and there wasn’t much of a road map for doing so. There were YouTubers with niche followings but no full-time influencers as we think of them today. Ryan, the 8-year-old unboxing star who now makes millions of dollars on YouTube, was not yet born.

When bloggers like myself first got invited to Fashion Week, some editors and critics voiced their disapproval, citing our lack of credentials or, in my case, the idea that it was unhealthy for a 14-year-old to attend (as long as she was writing and not, say, modeling for free, like other girls there my age). I felt like my blog’s popularity was more symbolically powerful than actually threatening. I also saw the two forms of media as serving different purposes: Magazines were the authorities on fashion and fashion news; I was just writing about what I liked, just being myself.

Now, that power balance has shifted: Influencers (or people ostensibly just being themselves) and brands with faces have larger digital followings than legacy titles on the social platforms where most online engagement happens. I used to feel I saw a clear line between those whose careers would not have existed without the internet (YouTubers, bloggers like me) and those who had already been approved by the pre-internet legacy-media Establishment (most celebrities). Today, even those who already had the approval of that Establishment are increasingly pivoting to influencing: Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba. Whether calculated or not, shirking Instagram in exchange for privacy and mystique is now a status symbol reserved for only a handful of stars.

After starting high school, I became disillusioned with the fashion industry, writing on my blog about the day in 2011 when I sat next to Anna Wintour in the front row of a Band of Outsiders show: “I felt like I was watching everything going on around me through a window. Usually I could see out of it, but every once in a while I was forced to look at my own reflection, which was less fun.” I didn’t want to work in fashion; I wanted to go to high school and write about high school. I wanted a feminist teen magazine to read, written by actual teens and other bloggers I liked, and I wanted to start it and edit it myself. So, also in 2011, I announced to my readers that I was starting Rookie. Jane Pratt gave it her blessing. Ira Glass advised my dad and me on how to monetize it. New York Media became our ad representative.

My readers became Rookie’s readers, contributors, and editors. For seven years, I dictated our monthly editorial themes, reviewed pitches, scoured the internet for new contributors, DM’d celebrities to ask them to do something with us, and wrote a monthly “Editor’s Letter.” I edited and art-directed our five print anthologies and promoted them through press and tours and, of course, on Instagram.

At first, I shared mostly “vintage-looking” iPhone photos — details of outfits and corners of my room disguised by Instagram’s old-timey filters. I also posted about Rookie’s books and events but rarely our content. I didn’t want people to see Rookie as my lifestyle brand or feel like they needed to like me in order to get something out of Rookie. Another rule to protect my soul, carried over from my blogging days, was to ignore the numbers — my follower count, Rookie’s traffic. Being considered a polarizing figure as a tween had taught me that fame was largely arbitrary and impersonal but could be leveraged to get opportunities and to find an audience for my work.

I wanted to reap fame’s benefits without feeling like my life would become a video game of winning people over and seeking attention. I wanted Rookie to reap the benefits of my fame without being inhibited by it and without inhibiting me by feeling like the whole of my identity. My blog had found its readers organically — that is, without the aid of marketing, advertising, a publicist, a manager, what have you — and I thought making Rookie really good was enough for it to do the same. It was, for a while.

After high school, I moved to New York, and the black hole came to life. Everyone and everything I encountered in person I had already interacted with or consumed online. The people I was fans of became real people I knew, but they didn’t know what I knew about them, and I didn’t know what they knew about me. There were a million versions of all of us running around in one another’s heads.

I acted in three Broadway plays. I gossiped, bought lots of clothes, drank too much. On Instagram, I posted my own press photos, party photos, and red-carpet photos, and I quieted the inner, younger me who would’ve found that shallow and gross. There was no need for another private fake-public account for these moments; they became my everyday. At last, I could claim the realm of visibility I’d authentically infiltrated.

Act II, The Influencer: When all the #con became #spon. Photo: Eva O’Leary

When I review posts from this era now, I almost envy my own life as though it were someone else’s. Then I mentally fill it out with everything that happened off camera. Here’s my friend and me dancing at a fashion party in very tiny outfits; today, we no longer speak. Here’s me in the pool at my Palm Springs Airbnb; I self-medicated so much I missed my flight home. Here’s me posing at the Met Ball; I sent my therapist an email declaring my spiritual crisis from inside the after-party bathroom. Outside the bathroom, at the Standard Hotel, was a literal hall of mirrors.

The biggest discrepancy between Instagram reality and reality-reality, however, was my and Rookie’s visibility versus our financial state. For years, Rookie could run on income from ads and book deals alone, and I could see myself as more of an editor than someone who had to pay attention to numbers. Around 2015, this was no longer sustainable: The digital-ad model imploded, and more and more online engagement moved to social media.

Instagram was both a threat to Rookie’s existence and offered as the solution to its problems. Although we still had a steady readership who came straight to the site every day, Rookie’s Instagram became both crucial to directing existing readers to the site and a destination in its place. The number of comments on Rookie went way down. Rookie’s traffic steadily declined. Our Instagram posts teasing new content on the site started getting more comments than the site itself. Our Instagram presence still benefited Rookie but not as much as engagement on Rookie’s site would have.

The internet was changing, and I became an adult. I knew it would stunt my growth to be Rookie’s editor indefinitely, to try to read teenagers’ minds long after I had been one. Still, I never thought that should mean the end of Rookie for future generations. So in 2017, Rookie’s publisher and I started seeking options to give it a long life: funding, partnerships, acquisitions. In these conversations with media companies and potential investors, we were continually told that Rookie had a much better chance of survival and even financial success if I committed more fully to being its face in the style of Gwyneth or Girlboss or Oprah, which partly meant using Instagram a lot more.

This wouldn’t help make Rookie and me feel separate, but the goal was to get it to a more sustainable place and then find my successor, the face of its next era. Building my personal brand on Instagram also meant I could support myself more through sponsored content, which meant I could continue not taking a salary from Rookie, as I had since its inception. (As a teen, I hadn’t needed to support myself; as an adult with income from acting and ad campaigns, I decided Rookie’s resources would be put to better use by hiring other editors. Among founders of start-ups, this is somewhat common: forfeiting a salary in order to grow a company and eventually see a larger financial reward.)

That year, Instagram became another job: I used it to promote Rookie more and to do more “sponcon.” The requests came in through my agents and managers. I did fashion campaigns and live events where social-media posts were worked into the contracts. I said yes to most of them, drawing the line at a store event that would involve posing with various lotions and a tacked-on message about self-love. Sometimes, brands our publisher had secured for Rookie partnerships wanted a post on my Instagram as part of the deal, too.

This is where the luxury rental building comes in. I was asked to live at 300 Ashland, right by the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, as part of a campaign the real-estate company Two Trees was doing to promote three new developments. In a deal that covered my rent for a year, I agreed to do press about the building, host an event for my followers on its plaza, and post about the building and neighborhood on my account. I’d long shared my living space online and decided to see this as no different, except I would get paid. And so, for a year, I lent my face to promote a borrowed home.

I was paid a flat rate for the whole year, not by the post, and the question of how often to post was left pretty open. Mostly, the marketing firm deferred to me, as they too wanted my Instagram to feel like I was posting the same content I would normally. Before the campaign was announced, the firm asked me to post a photo showing I had moved, geotagging the building but not tagging it as an #ad. I complied, figuring I’d have shared that I’d moved anyway. Of course, that didn’t make it not an ad, so I was called out in the comments for not being transparent. From then on, the firm asked that I use the hashtag #300AshlandPartner.

Shortly thereafter — June 2017 — Instagram introduced the partnership tag feature, so that influencers could clearly identify paid posts and there’d be no more confusion. Today, along with partnership tags, there’s a Checkout feature, available only to select influencers, that allows their followers to purchase products directly through sponsored posts. Sponcon has also become more common among people who are not considered influencers first: art curators, magazine editors, actors, illustrators. But in those early days, at least among some of my followers, the idea of advertising that posed as organic only read as creepy. I don’t know if they now see deals like mine more as a necessary evil or (as I did) an easy way to subsidize lower-paying projects, or if they’ve just accepted that Instagram has become one big shopping mall.

Some of the criticism I received included speculation around my financial situation. With multiple high profile jobs, how much more did I really need? I learned that influence, visibility, and cultural currency imply a wealth that the imagination can really run with. But as plenty of actors, models, and content creators can attest, visibility and money do not have a direct correlation. The internet is full of people making free content in the hope of eventually being known enough to get sponsored or hired. Actors receive press and accolades for movies for which they were paid scale. Until recently, models regularly walked shows for luxury fashion brands for trade.

Conversely, some types of visibility can pay disproportionately well: I once made more money doing a daylong photo shoot for a fashion campaign than I did performing in eight shows a week in five different nonprofit theater productions combined. Rookie helped me make a personal brand I could leverage for money, but I never profited from it financially — the two times I did pay myself for my work at Rookie, that money went back into it soon after.

None of this negates the criticisms I received for my initial lack of transparency or for the building’s contribution to gentrification. It only serves to highlight the way the black hole can make something as personal as one’s finances seem knowable to strangers.

Act III, The Professional: Celebrities invaded Instagram and social-media manager became a job. Photo: Eva O’Leary. Dress by Prada. Shoes by Manolo Blahnik. Clutch by Bienen Davis.

I saw Rookie not as a financially successful business but as a publication good enough to organically gain millions of readers. Still, I felt like a fraud for being more valuable as a personal brand making money on Instagram than as a founder whose business couldn’t afford to give her a salary and who couldn’t get certain investors or buyers onboard or chickened out from pursuing those who’d expressed interest. In an ad campaign or on Instagram, my face tells a story of self-made, multi-hyphenate success; it represents Rookie’s influence and the web’s democratization of fashion and publishing. Those were all real. But they felt less real if I considered that I could only actually support myself using the face part.

In the mirror, my face tells me the story of my own anxiety. In 2014, the same year I moved to New York, with my face on the cover of this very magazine, I developed a habit of picking at its skin. I sometimes do it mindlessly in the middle of another activity and almost always if I find myself in front of a mirror. Once I start, I continue until I feel some release via peel, pop, et cetera. (Sorry.) Once I realize what I have done, I examine my reflection and feel like a stupid feral animal. I hate that my anxiety is so easily betrayed by my face, that whether I go bare or wear cakey makeup, I am wearing my psychology for all to see. The self-loathing leads to more picking, and the cycle continues.

Of all the nervous habits to have, why claw at my greatest asset? One friend suggests it is a territorial response to publicness, a way of exercising control. Another thinks it is a subconscious rejection of the type of fame I have both relied on and resented. I wonder if — much like my old refusal to see Rookie as a business — the longer I continue to pick at my face, the longer I feel less like a participant in the adult world and more like a teenager who is still just visiting. I imagine that the day my skin clears will be the day I become a woman, greeted by new forms of sexism and ageism. With scabs and pimples, I am not taking any of this too seriously; I am dodging certain expectations before I can fail to meet them. I am still an advanced child, rather than an average adult.

Whatever the source of this anxiety, it seemed foolish to do things I knew were making it worse. So in the fall of 2017, I evaluated which activities could go. Rookie, at that time, felt nonnegotiable. So did promoting it on Instagram. And promoting my sponsored apartment and my acting projects and my general self I make money off, also on Instagram. But the actual act of posting — and of mindlessly scrolling through the black hole, looking for a self-destructive hit, much in the style of skin-picking — that could go. I asked a woman who had done personal-assistant work for me if she wanted a new gig. Since then, I’ve texted her my photos and captions, and she has posted them on my behalf.

Some friends are disturbed to hear of my secret Instagram system, though none suspect it until I tell them. They are offended that I don’t see their posts and comments or are weirded out to imagine my going to the trouble of sending someone something designed to look in-the-moment or impulsive.

I’m not sure my Instagram posts were ever very “in the moment”; I’ve always labored over them. As far as other people’s posts go, I still look at some accounts on my computer as though they were blogs. Sometimes I check comments there, too, where it’s less tempting to get sucked in, and this year, I started a Google doc where this person pastes any feedback I might be interested in, according to the criteria I’ve specified: the kind of personal, detailed comments I used to see on Rookie or my blog; constructive criticism; and anything from a verified account — Instagram is a networking tool, after all. I am ashamed to admit how many nice comments I don’t see, but internalizing praise can be just as unhealthy as internalizing contempt.

In November 2018, for a host of financial and personal reasons you probably saw coming, Rookie folded. I published a long letter to our readers about why and spent a day reading the loving reactions on Twitter and Instagram before understanding that I still felt too raw. I opted for some quiet.

Since Rookie ended, lots of people have referred to it as one of the safest, kindest places on the internet. And it was genuinely very special, thanks to the thoughtfulness and talents of everyone in its community. Still, I suspect that part of why it has taken on a mythic quality as one of very few exceptions to the internet’s general hostility is that social-media platforms are designed to feel hostile, and if that’s where you spend most of your time, you probably think social media is the whole of the internet.

As Jia Tolentino writes in her essay “The I in the Internet,” social-media platforms work best — that is, as they are intended to — when they are unsatisfying. For all the knowledge and inspiration that many social-media users have given me via their profiles, the apps themselves (I mean Instagram and Twitter) were designed to be hierarchical and addictive. Despite these platforms’ recent attempts to be less detrimental to their users’ mental health, to monitor and improve “conversation health,” and to retroactively apply journalistic ethics to cesspools of abuse and misinformation, their business models are based on exploiting people’s psychology for maximum engagement, much like a video game you can’t stop playing but will never win.

Since enacting my system, I think about 20 people in a day instead of 500,000. I am largely absent from a wider social circle, but I am a more attentive close friend. I am rarely moved to capture moments for public consumption since eliminating the step of priming them in Instagram’s gloss. I am less frightened by the mundanities that fall outside the black hole and have come to see that they are actually luxuries: waiting, in-betweens, the minutiae that make up my daily routine.

My system created a buffer that allowed me to piece together a private life and probably the clarity necessary to finally shut down Rookie. I don’t know what would be on a private fake-public account now, as I pretty much share everything I want to and don’t share everything I don’t want to. I still have my anxious skin habit, but I respect myself a little more, knowing that I’ve made decisions toward a less stressful life.

After Rookie folded, I watched my follower count drop from 544,000 to 509,000. I saw in my analytics that I have more followers in the 45-to-54-year-old bracket than the 13-to-17-year-old one. When I first noticed these shifts, they felt significant, and I was struck with the feeling that I still “need” to use my account for work. But my job now is to finish writing a book and a movie. Any sense of obligation I feel toward sharing myself on Instagram is more out of a fear of being forgotten or of missing out on the opportunities granted to those with strong personal brands. But not wanting to keep up a personal brand is part of why I folded Rookie. Not paying attention to numbers is why I could enjoy it as a passion project for so many years. When the thought that I need to get back into the game grips me, I refocus on my work. Being paid to write and perform is what I wanted this whole time.

I hope my system has helped me care less about being liked, but I don’t expect ever to fully unlearn the inner salesperson or the shareability lens, nor do I necessarily want to. The never-not-branding feeling of being on Instagram — and the seeing the world as a reflection of your brand, which comes with it — can also be part of being an editor or curator. Knowing you could always end up writing about what you’re experiencing is part of being a writer. Watching yourself within a moment can be part of acting and is certainly part of the self-promotion that comes with doing any of the above for a living.

I think the internet is at its best when it’s used to move forward in time. To repurpose the heightened level of self-awareness that it’s taught me to creative ends. To be surprised by something outside of my control — like an audience. To learn and share and, though it sounds trite at this point, connect. Amid all the self-worth-measuring that has made up my experience of the internet, I believe there was also self-actualizing, and that there still can be.

At a Rookie book signing just last year, a 14-year-old asked me if it was okay to “change who you are even if it’s different from who you are on your blog.” My answer, of course, was “Of course.”

Act IV, The Relatable: Aspirational photos no longer perform as well as ones that feel #real. Photo: Eva O’Leary

Earlier this year, I decided to use Instagram to reacquaint myself with these possibilities. I paid attention to people who I thought looked like they were having fun on the app, like the comedian Chloe Fineman with her many ingenious impressions. One weekend in March, Ivanka Trump posted a sinister video of herself on Twitter, and I posted a video parodying it. It was widely circulated, and I’m happy people found it funny.

After noticing how few likes my posts of book excerpts or event fliers had gotten by comparison — like, so few that I thought people weren’t even seeing them — I tried using the platform to test out a theory I’d heard about Instagram’s algorithm while fundraising for Rookie: that it prioritizes faces and videos in people’s feeds over other types of content. (The feed isn’t chronological but is sorted by an invisible algorithmic hand.) This notion encapsulated my agony over the idea that being a face, a personal brand, was the most likely way to get one’s content seen on the oversaturated World Wide Web. I made a video of myself asking my followers to tell me where my video fell in their feeds, and many confirmed that they were seeing my new posts high in their feeds for the first time in months. They were divided on whether that was because Instagram explicitly favors certain types of data or because Instagram prioritizes, for each user, content similar to other content they’ve liked.

Not one to let a joke die without bludgeoning it, I spent a couple of hours walking around Times Square, filming myself searching for the algorithm — as in, backdrops that would perform well on Instagram. I tried the love sculpture and Angelina Jolie’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds, and I hashtagged the videos #myalgorithmjourney.

Doing these videos became a good exercise in making things, putting them out there, and moving on. I jotted down notes for characters and spent hours filming myself and editing the videos. I read most of the comments myself and learned that panic spirals are less likely when I like what I’ve made and don’t care if people hate it.

Some commenters told me I had “snapped” or “lost it,” and thousands unfollowed. Others were supportive and replied with jokes that made me laugh alone in my apartment, and I was sent back to the connective internet of my youth. Then I went off to a writing residency, then started acting in a new play, then stopped getting ideas, or at least none I wanted to spend hours executing. I learned that unless I put them up right away, I would get worried about the black hole. I would overthink and change my mind.

After posting these videos, Eva Chen, Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships, DM’d me to come to the company’s offices and learn how the algorithm works. There, two Instagram employees who said their jobs are mostly to “myth bust” around the algorithm — at least to people like me, who have a big follower count — told me the algorithm does not explicitly favor faces or videos and mostly “shows you more of what you already like,” though they would not say how it measures data similarities. I don’t know what it means that Instagram users like it when the people they follow post pictures of their faces. As a photographer friend pointed out, portraiture has always been the most popular genre of painting “because people can read themselves into it.”

Instagram didn’t share anything that isn’t already public knowledge, except for an impressively detailed, NDA-protected packet with analytics on my account. The Instagram employees also told me that celebrities, models, and influencers had recently been coming to them wanting to know why their casual selfies outperform their posed red-carpet photos and editorial shots. Chen explained that aspirational photos did better a few years ago, but now users crave posts that seem to be behind-the-scenes, candid: “People want to see you letting your hair down.”

Forbes and a handful of social-media-marketing websites echo that appetites are changing. People are sick of unrealistic lifestyles and picture-perfect aesthetics, they say. The next era of Instagram is all about the “relatable influencer,” with trends like #nomakeup, #nofilter, #mentalhealth, #bodyimage, and “Instagram vs. Reality” memes. I now realize that in this essay, I’ve hit five out of five.

*This article appears in the September 16, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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