It was a Saturday in February and I was standing in a small, empty apartment five stories above 14th St. in Manhattan. Soft winter light poured through the naked southern windows. My phone buzzed. I held it up to my face—which it recognized—and it unlocked itself and opened to Instagram. I saw the four-digit follower count at the top of the screen and a smirk escaped across my lips. Mission accomplished. God—it was almost too easy.
I felt compelled to celebrate, and grabbed a roll of paper towels and a blue Crayola marker, two of the only objects left in my recently vacated home. I scribbled "1000 followers" on a single paper towel and ripped it off and placed it ever-so-delicately into the toilet, as parallel to the water as I could manage, trying not to disturb the blue ink. I unzipped my fly with one hand—phone in the other—and tapped "Go live", setting my aim directly at the blue text floating in the center of the ovular porcelain bowl. In a second I was about to broadcast myself urinating into a toilet for the whole world to see.
In the past few weeks, I'd posted exactly fifty-four Instagram posts of my pee, and nothing else. The account racked up hundreds of likes and comments. I received dozens of direct messages courting me as an influencer, propositioning me for sex, and one invitation to join the elite secret society known as the Illuminati. Of course, none of it was real. It was all a digital dream in a strange, vast kingdom.
Back to the bathroom. A red light blinked on my phone, confirming the connection. I was live! I let the muscles in my pelvic floor relax. The unmistakable tinkling sound rattled around the pink tiled room and the yellowish stream exploded into the bowl's flat calm and the blue ink began to mix and blur and the whole thing became a fuzzy irradiated turquoise. I was instantly nervous that I wouldn't be able to summon enough urine from my bladder—I definitely hadn't had enough water that day.
No one joined the livestream, but then again, it was mid-day on Saturday, when Instagram engagement tends to peter out. Honestly I was a wee bit deflated that none of my followers had joined. After it was over I zipped up, flushed, and sat cross-legged in the middle of my tiny, empty apartment. I wondered: how did I end up like this?
It started a decade ago, kind of. For a week in 2009 I kept a Photoshop file composed of a grid of colored tiles. Each tile's hue matched a sample from a photo I'd taken of my pee. I thought that the natural gradations in color—a biological result of the quantity and type of beverages I chose to consume—might be interesting. The project never went anywhere.
But years later a technology would emerge that would be perfect for building little grids out of our most intimate moments and sharing them with the world.
Fast forward: February 2019. I was knee-deep in research for this project, Over Instagram. I wanted a way to illustrate my frustrations with the social media giant. In the years prior, I'd shared hundreds of my photographs there. But I could count on one-hand the number of times I felt like anyone really saw my work. And when I say saw, I don't mean that their eyes passed over it for a few milliseconds, sandwiched in-between a blurry picture of their friend's French bulldog Chad and an ad for an overpriced suitcase. This is what Instagram calls an Impression.
Desperate and confused, I went looking for ways to juice my follower count. I wandered into a shady underworld where algorithms masqueraded as people, endlessly performing their grotesque, mechanized dance to an audience of millions, hoping to be thrown a scrap of that elusive new currency called attention.
I dreamt of a future where humans are merely bystanders while a billion bots post and like and comment and follow and unfollow each other with increasing velocity while a sweaty Mark Zuckerberg laughs maniacally, illuminated only by the sickly glow of a computer dashboard zigzagged with red-lined charts racing up and to the right with such force they run clear off the screen and the servers can't keep up and get so bloated with data that KABOOM! it all blows right to kingdom come like an irritable bowel the morning after a drunken Taco Bell run.
But I persisted.
If you Google "how to succeed at Instagram", you'll find a hundred thousand articles all rehashing a version of these things:
Post unique content.
Have a consistent visual theme.
Like other people's photos.
Use hash tags for discoverability.
These tips, if you'll pardon my french, are shit. A billion other people are doing the same things and following this advice will get you exactly nowhere. They're table stakes for playing the game.
Here's the first secret: Instagram doesn't want you to succeed. At least, not like this. Instagram needs you to pay up, so don't be fooled. It's not a meritocracy. It's capitalism. You pay for attention, like always.
I didn't tell anyone about my little experiment. I registered a new username, i__c__u__p, with all the wit and drollery of a 6th grader. By all accounts, it should be a runaway success, neatly checking the boxes from all the articles I'd read: post frequently (as long as I stay hydrated...check!), unique content (double check!), consistent visual theme (yellow...check!), like other people's photos (easy enough...check!), use hash tags (duh...check!).
After confirming I wasn't going to be violating Instagram's content guidelines (nothing prohibiting pee photos!), I took a leak, snapped a photo and hit Post.
I had exactly zero followers, so I wasn’t disheartened when no one liked my first post: a lonely, golden rectangle.
Over the next few days I posted faithfully every time nature called. I discovered that using my iPhone’s zoom lens yielded the most artistic results. Pro tip: when it comes to making photos of pee, the tighter the crop, the better.
A few likes started to trickle in. Now there were a half dozen squares in varying hues. And the bubbles! They were my favorite part. Every time I leaned down to snap a photo, a thousand pee bubbles reflected back at me, like a multi-eyed creature watching curiously from the bottom of the toilet bowl.
Here’s an actual tip for getting a lot of Instagram followers quickly: follow an ungodly number of other accounts. The trick is identifying the accounts that are most likely to follow you back. Especially if—especially if!—you’re gramin’ pictures of your pee, you do not want accounts with discriminating taste. And you’re in luck, because Instagram is full of people who are so busy trying to get people to look at them, they couldn’t care less about you.
So I went in search of the most desperate bottom-feeder accounts I could find. And I followed. Oh how I followed! By the hundreds!
I employed a critical dual-pronged test to decide which accounts to follow:
First, they had to at least appear real. That meant a profile picture and a bio that wasn’t linking off to some sketchy web site. Basically, they shouldn’t be an obvious spam-bot account.
Second, they had to have a smallish number of followers. I reasoned that an account with 50 followers was going to be much more likely to follow me back than an account with 5,000 followers.
When I found an account like this, first I followed it, then I tapped the little down arrow to reveal a carousel of similar accounts and I robotically mashed the follow button on each one until my fingers went numb. Well, not really, Because before that happened I would trigger Instagram’s rate-limiter, which seems to kick-in after following a couple hundred or so accounts.
And it worked! For every ten accounts I followed, roughly one of them would follow me back. Not bad.
I did wander into some fairly niche Instagram communities using this method, like taking a wrong turn and ending up in an unfamiliar part of town. I followed one Full House fan account, and soon I was following a hundred. These people were obsessed, posting stuff multiple times a day. There was a video of Michelle as a toddler, wearing a bedazzled cone-shaped “Happy Birthday” hat, throwing her hands up in elation. And a freeze-frame of gangly, teenage Kimmy wearing kooky sunny-side-up egg suspenders with a thought-bubble floating over her head and the text “Do it…Gibbler style!” scrawled crudely inside. And a low-key black and white portrait of a shirtless Uncle Jesse posing with baby Michelle that felt borderline inappropriate. And on. And on. And on. Have mercy!
Every time I opened the app I salivated waiting for that little pink bubble to float up over the bottom of the screen that would indicate how many followers I’d gained since the last time I checked. It felt incredible: 10, 20, 40 new followers at a time! Could this be it? Was I on my way to influencer status, with all the fame and fortune that title conferred?
I started getting likes. A lot of them. Comments too.
User ric_clicks said “In love with your profile! 😍”, beneath a photo of soggy toilet paper swollen at the bottom of a sulphur-hued bowl. An attractive brunette commented “gözelll”, which translates as “beautiful” in Turkish (for whatever reason, I had a large Turkish following, according to Instagram’s analytics). User kom_tattoo, with 17.6k followers, said ‘Nice eyes’.
Who were these people, liking and commenting on photos of pee?
Who cared!? They were my loyal devotees, living and dying by every urge of my bladder. Bali, Tulum, Marrakech…here I come!
Somewhere I’d read that many influencers achieve success by doing collaborations (called collabos) with other Instagram users. One day I came across an account whose schtick (Tip #3) was only posting pictures of yellow things: bananas, school buses, sunflowers, gold chains, etc. It was a match made in Instaheaven.
But they weren’t interested.
Other accounts were clamoring to collabo with me. An account called “womens_style_inspo” called one of my photos “chic” and I told them I was a nano influencer and would like to be featured on their feed. They responded with a Paypal link and a price list: 1 post for $35, 2 posts for $45, up to 10 posts for $145. They guaranteed 200-300 followers per “shoutout”. Rude. So that’s how it was going to be? I was doing fine on my own thank you.
A week or so later an account called Mosshouse Boutique commented on one of my posts. The tiny comment—beneath a closeup of warm, frothy urine—said:
“Hey…we love your feed. We would love for you to be part of our brand. Send us a DM for details!”
It was all happening! I shot them a private message and said hello.
To my surprise, they responded almost instantly: “Hey, thanks for the DM. This is Eleanor at Moss House. How are you?”
“A little dehydrated honestly” I typed.
“Awesome :) we reached out because your style and your feed. Have you heard of Moss House Boutique before?”
My…style? Whatever. I went with it. “Oh wow, I’m flattered! But no, I haven’t heard of you.”
“I can tell you more! We’re a growing boutique working with some amazing artisan designers from around the globe and we’re excited to share what we’re working on with wonderful souls like you :)”
I responded “Can I be an influencer for your brand? I will share with all my followers.”
In response they offered me 25% off anything in their store (using coupon code LOOK25), which was disappointing because I’d heard brands usually give influencers stuff for free. But they said that once my order arrived I should feel free to snap some “cool photos” and tag them because they’d love to share them on their Instagram.
Despite my frustration, I tried to #staypositive, a life slogan that many successful influencers adopt. I clicked through to their website and found something called “Cut and Sew Grid Print Long Sleeve Minimalist Coat” for $28 ($21 after my influencer discount, free shipping) and ordered one in size small.
I messaged back. “Ok sounds good! I’m so excited I might pee! (Spoiler alert: I’m definitely going to pee)”
While I waited for my coat to arrive, I continued to post faithfully, even though it was awkward when using public urinals, like the ones we had at work. I’d learned to get the camera ready before I walked into the restroom so I could discretely snap a pic quickly after I’d finished relieving myself. Some of my coworkers had a habit of checking their phones while peeing—I guess they were doing really important stuff that couldn’t wait—so it wasn’t that weird.
The coat finally arrived, and the fit was okay, but it definitely didn’t look as good as it did on the website. The fabric was thin and it was roughly constructed, and the grid pattern felt instantly out-of-date, like something you’d find on the clearance rack under the sad ceiling fluorescents of a Marshall’s. But I had to start somewhere, right?
I put it on and grabbed my laptop and Googled “how to pose like an influencer”. I settled on a pose called “Armpit air-out” that I thought would accentuate the long, flow-y coat. I grabbed some grapes off the table to use as a prop and asked my wife to snap a photo.
After adding some post-production touches, I was ready to make my big debut. Hand twitching, I loaded up the photo in Instagram and pasted in the hashtags I’d aped off some social media expert’s blog: #influencerstyle #influencersofsweden #instamood #foodporn #hypebeast #love #paris #sunset #cats, etc., etc.
And I needed a caption, something that was realistic, but inspiring. I typed out: “#brunch is served! ready for #sundayfunday with my #nyc #squad. absolutely in love with my new Grid Print Long Sleeve Minimalist Coat from @mosshouse_boutique!” I waited for the menu to pop up that would make the tag official. But nothing happened. I frantically tapped back to my private messages to make sure I’d spelled the name correctly. But the conversation wasn’t there. I searched for the username…same thing. “Account does not exist.”
I couldn’t believe it. I heard a sound like knuckles rapped against a metallic vat and I sunk down into the couch, still wearing the chintzy white coat.
Jim Carrey—the comedian and mega-celebrity who rose to cultural significance in the 90’s in no small part by using his own butt cheeks as a ventriloquist’s dummy in the hit film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—said this:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
I sat in the middle of my empty living room—the middle of Manhattan, the middle of the Universe—staring at the blank white walls.
Where was this all going? If I could hit 1k followers this easily, I could probably hit 2k or even 10k. What difference did it make? It was a vapor, a hallucination, a siren. I had hoped having a small army of Instagram followers would make me feel important or interesting or—at the very least—that I’d get some free stuff. But after weeks of religiously posting pictures of my pee, I was drained.
The light through the windows softened and I knew it was getting late. My wife and baby daughter were waiting for me to return home with a few last boxes, completing the move to our new apartment just down the street. I got up and left, the brown door squeaking behind me as it shut with a heavy thud. ❤