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I created my Instagram account in 2014, under a handle too pretentious to admit, back when I was 18, when both the platform and I were different beasts than we are today. Then, Instagram was formatted blockish and blue, the logo a straightforward camera on a lock screen. There were no stories. Images you uploaded were permanent, or as permanent as an image can be when you have the option of a dropdown menu, of thumbing delete.
And delete I have. Those early Instagram photos of myself (and they were always photos of me, heavily filtered, effortfully sloe-eyed) have been gradually and subtly pared away. But certain images, about 200 of them at a recent count, I’ve left behind: There’s a shot of me done up in an odd combination of shorts and thrift-store heels, smiling beside a movie poster at a strip-mall theater. Around that time there’s also an image of me in a crop top with my hands running through my hair, liberated and sexy, notwithstanding the fact that I was in a parking lot with a public trash can in the frame. There’s another of me looking over my bare shoulder; the one of me on my knees in the sand, glancing downcast in a bright-blue two-piece, part of a series of highly posed shots meant to be mistaken for candids.
I don’t judge the girl in the candids. I recognize her as someone who is not myself, who took photos not for herself, but for an anonymous viewer whose attention at once I badly desired and also wasn’t so sure I wanted to have. I kept my profile on its default public setting. It was a trade-off, framed in uncertain terms. My privacy; your sporadic likes.
The subtext of my early Instagram life was transparent: I hoped you’d find me, viewer.
As it goes with public accounts, what I got in between those likes were DMs from strange men, body shots with faces cropped out, accompanied by generic pickup lines. I accepted these messages as an unfortunate reality of being female on Instagram and promptly deleted them. My burgeoning online persona itself drifted in the desperate space between aspiring beautiful and gently thirst-trapping. I location-dropped and let hashtags accumulate behind me like footprints. #ThisCoffeeShop, #ThatBookstore, #CollegeBound, #MorningsideHeights.
The subtext was transparent: I hoped you’d find me, viewer. What was more opaque, what I hadn’t thought through, was this: What would happen if you did?
A few weeks into my first semester of college, I was spending the morning getting breakfast at a bagel shop that’s now indefinitely closed for health reasons, when I received a DM from a man who’d started following me late in the summer. I’ll call him T. I was at the lunch counter when I got the notification, at a seat where it felt permissible to eat alone. I was alone: My college friendships were then tepid and fledgling; my impression that I’d come to New York and be surrounded was a theory dispelled.
I clicked. T’s IG handle was familiar to me. I’d looked at his profile once or twice after he began following me, out of curiosity. “Likes” from strangers were incidental, a “follow” was more deliberate; he’d done both. After the initial follow, he popped onto my radar every time he floated me a like—for pictures of a teakettle; for a tote bag I’d seen a girl wearing on the street, embossed with a John Waters quote about who not to sleep with (people who don’t read); for a dosa cart I’d chased down in Washington Square Park. Aside from one or two prettified and curated selfies, his likes were devoted to the people and places that fascinated me. It seemed like a good sign, a digital testament of character, the way he refused to like the me who was not me; the me who photographed like an object.
Looking through his profile, I noted that there were only few degrees of separation between me and this man, this stranger. A series of cap-and-gown photos indicated that he’d graduated with a masters from the university where I was starting out as an undergrad. According to location pin-drops, we lived maybe five blocks away from each other.
The DM he sent read, “Hey, I noticed you recently moved to the city for school. I was in the same position not too long ago. I know it’s difficult to adjust… Please feel free to reach out, if you ever need advice.”
The DM he sent contained a picture of a Midtown skyline, taken from an undisclosed vantage point. The picture was accompanied by a message: “Hey, I noticed you recently moved to the city for school. I was in the same position not too long ago. I know it’s difficult to adjust. The city can be an exciting place, but daunting sometimes.” Could it now? “Please feel free to reach out, if you ever need advice.”
The message was boilerplate, and so was the photo — the kind of generic beauty you’d find on a Google image search of “Manhattan.” But they were also a welcome change of pace from the others that I’d received. I responded instantly, forgetting to leave him hanging on read receipt for the obligatory minimum of two hours.
“Thanks so much!” I wrote. This is the younger media me, full of #gratitude, wanting to #please. “But I’m from Jersey, I’ll be just fine.”
That didn’t stop the conversation. Over DM, we spoke for days. Out of nowhere came the conversational ease of longtime friends. Whenever we hit a lull, a shared @fuckjerry meme did enough work to keep us going. T was an architect. I was an aspiring writer. “What kind of things do you write?” he asked. From the personal information we shared, I knew that, given our seven-year age gap, he’d lived a portion of his life in a way I never had: offline. I liked to tease that part. “Google me,” I replied.
We moved from DM to text message. After that, we decided to move from text message to face-to-face.
Down to his height, T appeared exactly as he did in photographs, which these days — behind these filters, from those angles — is not necessarily a given.
Over lunch with him, my palms sweated. None of the ease of our virtual conversations or the seeming intimacy gathered from my casual yet meticulous sweeps through his feed translated here. We sat on a bench in Riverside Park, leaving enough distance between each other that onlookers might have mistaken us for the strangers we were. In front of us, joggers navigated fallen leaves and plastic bottles. I fidgeted with the zipper of my fall jacket. When T spoke to me — about his time in graduate school, about his move to New York a few years ago — the patronizing tone of his DM was absent. Even as conversation came more easily, he didn’t once try to bridge the physical gap between us, defying my expectation of Older Man Off The Internet as inherently lascivious. Older Man Off The Internet was now a person, not a profile. And so was I. We couldn’t click away if we wanted to.
Sliding into DMs was to me a cliché, and for him, a creepy admission.
Over time, the relationship made a full transition from impersonal follow to intimate connection. Sometime in this period, I switched my profile from the default public setting to private, suddenly wary of the viewer I’d been working to impress.
When my partner and I met each other’s friend circles, we sometimes peddled a backstory in which we’d met each other in person rather than on Instagram. It was a narcissistic anxiety — who really cared how we met? — but sliding into DMs was to me a cliché, and for him, a creepy admission.
And yet I cared. The closer we became offline, the further things went in real life, the more I wondered (I admit it: obsessed) about our life online. How much of it had actually been chance, and how much of it was cliché? His DM had been pretty trite, after all. What if it was me who’d been thirst-trapped?
I could have let it go. It was neurotic to think about things like this, I knew. I had better things to think about. But then we were at dinner at a Dominican place on Amsterdam, and I was sneaking rice off his plate and he was letting me do it — romance in the most realistic sense, the comfort-food palliative to all the loneliness I’d felt, moving here. If the origin of the relationship had been in some sense artificial, how real was any of it?
I leaned over the table and asked him, laughingly, with my fork in his plate, “How many people did you send that message to?”
“Nobody,” he assured me. “Just you. Why does it matter to you so much?”
It doesn’t, I conceded. Whatever. And maybe I got my hands on his phone later to see for myself.
If you were to compare my profile and T’s side by side, you’d see I liked to be my own subject, inserting myself into my own photos whenever possible. On his account, T occupied the position of an observer. Here is a view of the Hudson from his apartment window in Harlem, of the skyline as it recedes farther and farther downtown. Here’s a candid of a gentleman in a fedora who brought his own rocking chair to get a seat on a crowded 1 train. Here are the white spines of the Westfield Oculus, speckled with tiny shoppers. In my own insecure estimations of our Instagram personas, he was a seasoned flaneur. I had done to myself the deleterious work that society does to young women, in that I had polished and prettified myself into an object, a thing fit for consumption. Apparently that object had caught his eye.
What I had romanticized as a chance encounter was the work of algorithms.
It mattered to me, not for the vindictive reasons I thought it would, but rather because it hadn’t occurred to me, in my fixed notions of what kinds of people we performed as online, that maybe he could be vulnerable, too. I’d been romanticizing so much. Maybe beneath our #basic selfies and skyline aesthetics, we had been projecting the same subtext, sending out the same digital smoke signals to reach out and connect. The connection could have been with anyone. It just so happened to be with each other.
After nearly a year together, T shared a photo of me to his Instagram. It’s an innocuous photo, taken impromptu. I’m in a black winter coat, waiting for an elevator, smiling at the person behind the lens. It has zero comments and a modest 23 likes. Objectively, it’s unextraordinary. And yet it was extraordinary to me. I felt like I had been a secret, at first questionable, now good, now told.
Eventually, I took a selfie of both of us, arm in arm at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I proceeded with caution, knowing that I might not always be with him, that ours began as a superficial connection, rooted in a social media app, ebbing and flowing in tandem with the app’s updates. Lonesome in a big new city, I wanted to be found; he literally found me in an explore feed. What I had romanticized as a chance encounter was the work of algorithms.
Did the algorithm’s role as matchmaker make it any less real? The app had brought us together, and it felt like taking it full circle, somehow, to put our relationship on display in the same frame. I hit “share.” I’d temporarily made myself an object, but beneath that surface, I was always a documenter. It’s a youth thing: I know nothing else but a compulsion to capture and share it all. My feed chronicled the moments that came and went. We were the people who happened, location pin-drop by location pin-drop.
39 likes. Four years and counting.
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