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Social stardom

Amy Verner/Instagram

Featured by Instagram, Amy Verner gained almost 100,000 followers in two weeks. But at what cost?

When you sign up for Instagram, there is no warning of existential consequences. Nor a disclaimer stating that a spike in followers has no bearing on self-worth, or that posting can be insidiously addictive and that every like may be internalized or scrutinized.

Over the last two weeks, these consequences have played out on the public stage as social media star Essena O'Neill and photographer Darby Cisneros – the creator of the widely popular satire account @SocalityBarbie – have ceased posting to their feeds.

O'Neill, a 19-year-old Australian, made the drastic volte-face of rewriting many of her captions to reveal the contrived conditions underlying each of her seemingly effortless photos. She has since launched a website where she revels in her new reality by denouncing her old one: "Nothing is perfect about spending every single day making your life look perfect online. That is not real. That is not inspirational. There is so much more we could be doing than editing ourselves and proving ourselves to others."

O'Neill's sincerity has been subsequently challenged, with other social media darlings claiming her tearful departure from Instagram was due to a break up, not burn out.

Portland-based Cisneros, meanwhile, came out from behind her zeitgeist-y doll, conceding the exercise prompted discussions about "the insane lengths many of us go to create the perfect Instagram life."

Perfection has never been my Instagram modus operandi. Since joining on Jan. 1, 2013, I'd describe my feed as a patchwork of Paris that is light on cliché, sparingly hashtagged and void of selfies (there are just two among almost 3,000 photos). While I actively post, I never actively court followers; I'd much rather people find me because they can differentiate between Le Corbusier and Le Creuset than because #ihavethisthingwithfloors. If I see something that may make a good post, I might snap a dozen photos to have options; beyond that, I refuse to use filters, frames or edit the image. This is the extent of my arbitrary approach. Well, not quite: the captions. As a writer, my words are my default creative outlet; where others spend time on retouching, all my efforts go into tone (informational, arch, arcane).

So when I received an email from Instagram on Oct. 18 informing me that I had been selected as a "Suggested User" to be featured in "a dynamic list that highlights some of the top photographers on Instagram," I thought I had been spammed. How, out of 400 million users, did they find me? In the first 24 hours, I went from having 2,800 followers to 12,700. By the time Instagram rotated me out of the list two weeks later, the count was a few hundred shy of 100,000.

Looks like someone's got a case of the Mondays.

A photo posted by Amy (@amyverner) on

At the risk of looking a gift horse in the social media mouth, the experience felt like I was riding out a mild flu. After the initial surge (attack?), I spent the first week fascinated and utterly unfocused, and the second week resigned to the absurdity of it all. Instagram offers the option to be removed from the list (I emailed a PR contact for additional information and received a direct reply from someone on the communications team with links to the suggested user process and general terms of use). People around me insisted that I would never experience an increase like this again and that it couldn't hurt in the long run. But I will never forget the moment a friend, unaware of this development, wondered whether I had been buying followers as a professional strategy. We were at the Centre Pompidou, and when she asked, my stomach felt as though it plummeted from the rooftop gallery to the street.

That evening, I posted a message to my feed clarifying the situation and mentioning how I had the impression of observing "a social media experiment playing out in real time and experienced personally."

The reaction to the note was as telling as anything that had happened so far. Sure, I was flattered by all the compliments – people writing that I deserved the distinction – but the congratulations and mentions of "instalebrity" made it seem as if I had actually achieved something or strived for this all attention all along.

Damien Florébert Cuypers, a New York-based illustrator who was among the other users featured by Instagram during the same two-week period, expresses an identical range of reactions, including how our vastly increased audience signalled quantity, not quality. "They happen to be the weirdest people in the world," he declares.

He's right. By and large, they are kids sticking out their tongues in bedroom selfies, a multicultural array of trolls (seriously, what's with the Guy Fawkes masks), a few softcore porn creeps, some scary accounts filled with automatic weapons and people posting pathetically unconvincing weight-loss/workout photos. We commiserated over how what seemed like a great opportunity resulted in an inflated and infiltrated tally of strangers. Moreover, he pointed out that the people whose likes meant something to him in the past became "diluted in this mass of anonymity."

So what now, I asked? "I find it worrying in terms of what this massive culture of branding yourself has become," he says. And yet, he admits that he wouldn't mind if this translated to new work. "Honestly, if I go to a party to make a drawing for Instagram and get paid $5,000, yes, of course [I'd do it]."

For Lindsey Tramuta (disclosure: a Paris pal), the influx of followers she's experienced from her @Lostncheeseland account being featured as an Instagram suggested user in January, as well as appearing on other lists of top Paris bloggers, serves as an effective tool to raise awareness about her upcoming book. As someone who has worked with brands on social media strategy, she also noted that brands are misguided if they think only in terms of numbers. "I am seeing more and more people with small audiences and high engagement, and if people are using Instagram to market themselves, that's more valuable."

As someone who posted photos truly for the sake of posting photos and yes, because a like from a friend or peer counts as a spark of superficial validation – I am relieved to no longer be pursued so aggressively in a way that felt out of control (I've even shed a few hundred followers!).

Still, I haven't been able to shake the constant impulse to check in on my account – I've looked about 15 times while writing this piece. I keep thinking of The Circle, in which author Dave Eggers channelled some potent observations on social media through the character Mercer, an off-grid chandelier artisan whose ex-girlfriend, the protagonist, works at the world's most powerful internet company. Observing people's addiction to social media, he says, "There's this new neediness – it pervades everything. It's just a very different planet."