“I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Celebrities are constantly gesturing at authenticity on social media, showing us how they make their morning coffee or what they look like without mascara on. But it usually feels like a performance carefully planned by a publicist: “See how relatable I am? How down-to-earth? Buy my $500 healing crystals.” So those moments when I know a celebrity is posting without anyone else’s guidance, when they’re sharing pure, unadulterated weirdness, are like chicken soup for my drama-deprived soul. Like when, on the fateful spring morning of May 20, 2017, Justin Bieber contracted conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye), and informed us, his loyal followers, about it on Instagram not once, not twice, but five times within an hour.
Each Instagram post in the series is solemn, blurry, and straight to the point, seemingly uploaded with approximately 15 seconds of forethought. “My left eye has conjunctivitis,” say the first two posts. “This eye has conjunctivitis,” reiterates a third, more cropped image. Some light drama is introduced in the fourth post, captioned “You can see it better here,” which switches the images from color to black-and-white to make the infection more visible. “Conjunctivitis,” verifies the especially direct final post. As if these five images weren’t inspiration enough, Justin then posted a graphic explicitly encouraging us to #BeBold.
Then, as quickly as the posts started, they were over. How did Justin get conjunctivitis? Did he get the medical help he needed? Were we, his followers, the first people he told? We never got any answers. We were never going to. That wasn’t the point. These stream-of-consciousness posts didn’t adhere to the established rules of storytelling that use exposition, conflict, and resolution to move the narrative along. They weren’t serviceable public-health PSAs, either. They were an unfiltered translation of Justin’s brain waves on the morning of May 17. His left eye was infected with conjunctivitis and he just really wanted to keep us — all 87 million of his followers — in the loop.
Justin Bieber gets into so many high-key antics that it’s easy to become desensitized to them. Oh he bought a monkey? Okay. It’s now being detained at German customs because he doesn’t have the right paperwork for it? Naturally. He has publicly feuded with not only Orlando Bloom and Bon Jovi, but also the entire country of China?
His pink-eye posts are the antithesis of those big production theatrics; they feel like an intriguing sliver of insight into what he’s like in quiet moments. I like them for this reason — his willingness to be unusually personal online, to be publicly rattled by a seemingly minor, very treatable infliction that most people wouldn’t think is worth posting about. I sometimes wonder if I would have a better relationship with social media if I modeled my behavior after his on the day he posted about pink eye, if I shared exactly what I was feeling with complete disregard to whether it was compelling, witty, or even logical.
There are two beliefs that have always stopped me from posting in such a way: First, inhibitions in public spaces are generally good. They keep me from telling strangers the specificities of my dreams, or from creating Instagram polls asking my followers — who include professional acquaintances and friends from high school — if they’ve ever lied to me or if I’m hotter than my many enemies. Second, social media is bad. It’s ruining our attention spans, giving us constant envy, inflating our egos, and aiding in the deterioration of our democracy. And yet I keep using it, even as it feels increasingly more corporate and less personal. Where I used to carelessly post multiple ugly Instagram selfies with snot running down my face or 60 nearly identical Photo Booth pictures in a Facebook album titled “Sumerrrrr,” I now agonize over which immaculately lit headshot should be my Q3 visual statement on How I’m Doing.
Instagram, my own account included, relies so heavily on building and maintaining glossy veneers of decorum, sometimes I just want to take a sledgehammer to it all with a few strange, mundane posts, the kinds of things I text my friends without thinking twice: “Does it look like I have a cavity in this picture of my right molar?” “I stopped wearing deodorant at the beginning of the pandemic and I thought for a while that I stopped sweating but actually I don’t think I did. I smell bad.” “Here’s what my Hinge profile looks like.”
It would be unwise to seek a guru in Justin Bieber. I know this. But for 60 fleeting minutes, five posts, one unwavering push toward boldness, I can’t help but feel that maybe he was onto something.