Instagram is simultaneously a glossy photo gallery, an art market space, a platform for brands, and seemingly a way for the average person to become famous and amass a healthy amount of money with little effort. The social media channel has come a long way since it was primarily a tool for artistically inclined users who wanted to take Polaroid-like photos with their once-subpar iPhone cameras. But the reality of ‘Gram fame is very different from the facade. In #followme, billed by Dutch broadcaster VPRO as the first documentary about Instagram for Instagram, director and host Nicolaas Veul posits that the site’s influencer economy is a barely concealed MLM scheme.
Veul introduces us to a series of “normal” people who work with Instagram. Olivier is a 19-year-old wannabe fashion influencer from Amsterdam whom we follow on a photo shoot. For one picture, he pretends to bite into a hamburger, but leaves it untouched, calling it just a prop (Veul proceeds to scarf it down). Katia from Moscow is a dedicated user of Commenter, software which facilitates the exchange of money for real people to comment on targeted pages. Sara Melotti is a Milan-based photographer and former travel influencer who admits to heavily doctoring her Instagram presence, and now regrets it. “If you’re doing it for your ego, you’re a moron, but if you’re getting paid for it, that’s fraud,” she explains after showing us a WhatsApp group text with more than 10,000 participants, in which everybody can post links to their latest photos, inviting others to like them.
One interviewee is a seller of fake followers who hides his identity with a hoodie and mask. He explains the different tiers he has for sale, which range from computer-generated accounts to real ones made by people who unwittingly provided their credentials. He calls what he does “social media management,” because at the end of the day, Instagram is neutral tool that currently lacks any meaningful regulation, and by buying followers, one is simply working on their own brand. In creative professions, social media prestige now carries more weight than degrees or significant experience. Instagram and its users are just playing by these rules.
The film does a good job of showing how mundane the creation of aspirational content is. Olivier unceremoniously loads the trunk of his car with several garment bags so he can pretend the photos he took in the span of a few hours were spaced across several days. We’re shown a stage in a nondescript building that has been made to look like the interior of a private plane. Influencers go there to pose Great Gatsby-style with champagne and Euro bills. Katia fiddles with Commenter the same way aspiring New York media types are often morbidly tethered to Twitter, demonstrating how easily side gigs can become all-consuming. Neither Veul nor his subjects have any solutions. This is still uncharted territory, so for the time being, it seems that one is better off grabbing the money and free trips before the well runs dry.
The entire film is presented in portrait mode, which works quite well. Not only is this ideal for viewing on smartphones (the intended medium), but by parroting the format of Instagram videos and stories, it makes the viewer feel like they’re peering into something personal that they’re not supposed to be let in on. Vuel also smartly avoids a US- or English-language-centric perspective. We’ve already read enough about Kim Kardashian or Caroline Calloway. It’s interesting to see how smaller players outside America are trying to get in this sandbox.
Clocking in at a little over 45 minutes, #followme does not aim to be as in-depth as a trendy multi-part investigative podcast or miniseries. It’s long enough to provide a full explanation of the topic, but brief enough to remain self-contained. More intriguingly, it demonstrates that Instagram as a medium can easily host video content that goes beyond showing shopping hauls, thirst traps, or incoherent rambling against FOMO-inducing backgrounds.