The Brooklyn Botanic Garden — with its roses, magnolia plaza and cherry esplanade — is an urban refuge, except for when the cherry blossoms burst from their buds. Then it becomes a hazardous place to stroll: Dozens of people dart across its paths, eyes trained on their phones, colliding while trying to frame perfect shots among the brilliant pink petals. A few years ago, Los Angeles Magazine noted something similar about the Paul Smith store on Melrose, which it ranked as having the city’s single most Instagrammed wall. Better known as the Pink Wall, it is neither more nor less than that description: a wall painted bright pink. But like the cherry blossoms, that is enough to make it a destination for a widely recognized type: the social media influencers, big-time and small-, amateur and pro, with whose tripods and ring lights we all must come to terms.
I am not an avid consumer of official-influencer content, but I know all about the Pink Wall. This is because I subscribe to an Instagram account called Influencers in the Wild, which chronicles the behaviors of the would-be internet famous with the avidity of an old nature documentary. In one recent post we see a man lying prone in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue, finding the perfect angle, while a woman in a bright red coat cavorts through a crosswalk with what appears to be an impeccably groomed Afghan hound. The city bus idling feet away is merely the backdrop for their attempt to wring a frothy Darren Star aesthetic out of the city.
That video is shot from far down the sidewalk. Influencers in the Wild tends to observe people like this from a distance, like dangerous lions. The menagerie is managed by George Resch, a popular meme creator known as Tank Sinatra; he curates videos sent to him by his millions of followers and posts them on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. The accounts’ popularity, he once told a BuzzFeed reporter, most likely came from “the fact that everybody has done it at some point and thought: Man I feel ridiculous. I bet I look ridiculous.”
They do. The scenes in these videos are almost normal, except that at least one person inside them is behaving, incongruously, as though he or she was modeling or acting. We see a snowstorm and then people posing in swimwear, risking frostbite for content. We see a crowd enjoying a National Park vista then spot the two people in its midst doing a synchronized TikTok workout. Mundane street scenes suddenly reveal a lone woman writhing in lingerie, as though a raunchy music video had erupted in precisely one spot. You are looking at the actual world, but some of the people in it seem to exist in an alternate dimension of slick online images.
We see a crowd enjoying a National Park vista then spot the two people doing a TikTok workout.
Beaches are overrepresented in the feed; I never knew so many people cosplayed as mermaids. Many videos might be categorized as “spring-break behavior.” Others form a blooper reel: You see someone perch on something wobbly or pose on the edge of an infinity pool, and have a pretty good idea this will end with a splash or a splat. The second-most-popular video on the TikTok page is of a woman falling from a tree branch that somehow catches on her bathing suit, suspending her in the air. The feed lets you see behind the scenes of Instagram’s grid: You learn that a particularly nice vantage is achieved by climbing on a dumpster or that flattering lighting may require coils and coils of extension cord, unspooled by a patient friend, parent or spouse.
The “in the wild” part of the account name is apt, but the “influencers” part might not be. Many of the videos’ subjects are just regular people, vamping and vogueing as regular people now do. Almost all of us participate in this; those people posing in the pumpkin patch could be anyone. (My wife and I took pictures in a pumpkin patch last fall. She posted them on Instagram.) In one clip, three kneeling women appear to hold up their food to the sunset, like supplicants making offerings to the gods, documenting their plates for posterity. They seem less like “influencers” and more like ordinary friends.
Even the people staging elaborate scenes could, in theory, be doing something like shooting merchandise for a clothing boutique; the woman shining a ring light on her dinner in a dark restaurant could be a food journalist. Or else they could just be getting Instagram shots. There is no longer any way to tell, because there is no longer so much difference between slick, professional media content and the way ordinary people document their lives — less and less distance between the photos you want of your night out and the photos you would see in an ad.
I reflect sometimes on an old video called Instagram Husband, which went viral several years ago. The premise, now strangely quaint, was that a few young women were the only ones obsessed with curating overly styled versions of their lives, one mug of artfully swirled cappuccino foam at a time; the video presented mockumentary-style interviews with their stoic husbands. The tide has turned against that latte-art aesthetic, just as it will one day turn against the pasteurized pop-and-lock dance moves of TikTok. But in 2021 it is obvious that just about everyone, of every age and gender, is either a content creator — and in their own way an influencer — or, like me, a passive consumer of that influence. More of us than would care to admit it end our days scrolling through photos of parties to which we weren’t invited, vacations we couldn’t afford and clothes we could neither pull off nor fit into.
The pandemic was supposed to lessen those feelings of jealousy by offering nothing to fear missing out on. That ended as soon as David Geffen posted a photo of his yacht and implored us all to stay safe. That picture sparked a brief online conflagration over inequality. But then it was recreated, on a more intimate scale, by the family you know with a house upstate, the friend who retreated to an island in Maine, the people who formed their little Boccaccio bubbles to live in idyllic communes, the people who filled time cooking parades of gorgeous dishes, the people whose kids are charming on video — it all reverted to the familiar deadening scroll through low-grade envy.
Over the past year, the more my world shrank, and the gap between the sunset cruisers and the hollow-eyed homebound grew, the more I needed Influencers in the Wild. It can be too much if consumed all at once, but it is remarkable in its natural habitat, tucked among the images in your feed, periodically reminding you that the perfect video looked ridiculous while it was taken. The couple squabbled as they squeezed into the frame together; the food got cold while they tinkered with the lighting; there were five belly flops for one swan dive. It is all just a show, and Influencers is a backstage pass.