LOS ANGELES – Last month, singer Courtney Love, who is a keen observer of social media trends, posted a cryptic message on Instagram.
“A lot of people don’t understand Gen-Z,” she wrote. “I think they’re funnier than any other generation I’ve ever known.”
Ms. Love’s Instagram post was accompanied by a blurry photo of her and a gallery of incoherent and messy screenshots filled with nonsensical text overlaid on random photos. Ms. Love praised several accounts that posted this type of content, and highlighted even more of them on Wednesday by saying they “made me think in memes.”
Ms. Love mimicked and praised a type of social media post that is now sweeping across Instagram. This type of posting, known in Internet slang as shitposting, involves people posting poor quality pictures, videos, or comments online. On Instagram, this means bombarding people’s feeds with seemingly random content, often accompanied by humorous or sectarian comments.
A growing ecosystem of Instagram accounts has embraced this text-heavy posting style, which gained popularity among Gen Z users during the pandemic. The trend has turned Instagram, Facebook’s photo and video-based app, into a network of microblogs and a destination for written expression.
Many of these Instagram accounts with absurd names like @ripclairo, @ botoxqueen.1968 and @carti_xcx may appear random to the casual observer. Still, there are similarities between the accounts. Almost all of them have screenshots of text over photos taken using Whisper’s anonymous confession app or Instagram’s “Create” mode, which allows users to design text posts over gradient backgrounds. The posts are also interspersed with uncredited images, viral videos, and humorous content.
“You just post your thoughts,” said Mia Morongell, 20, a creator of the @ lifes.a.bender Instagram account, which has over 134,000 followers. “It’s like Twitter, but for Instagram. It’s like a blog where you express personal thoughts and feelings. “
For years, Twitter served this very purpose by repackaging and posting the most engaging tweets from meme accounts and influencers on Instagram. Twitter recognized this change and launched its own Instagram account in 2017, making it easier for users to share tweets than Instagram stories.
But Twitter posts have a 280 character limit. And for Generation Z users, the combination of text, tools like the Whisper app and Instagram Create mode has blended into a viral alchemy that resonates with their age group.
“When you see someone following a meme page they usually tweet on, they have a different sense of humor than what Gen Z would think is cool,” said Faris Ibrahim, 18, who is in the style on his Instagram page @puddle_boot.
In a recent post, Tanisha Chetty, 15, who runs Instagram @ life.is.not.a.soup, posted a picture of a mattress in a graffiti-covered room. Above it was a note in clunky black and white text that read, “We should be less concerned about mental health. Girl go crazy You’re valid. ”While the site only has 5,644 followers, the post garnered nearly 30,000 likes and thousands of comments.
Those pages have risen during the pandemic when young people turned to Instagram to externalize their innermost identities and seek a connection, said Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends and meme librarian at XX Artists, a social media company Agency. “They are very representative of teenagers who have spent the last year communicating solely on the Internet,” she said.
YouTubers who have adopted this posting style have seen the number of followers skyrocket. The @on_a_downward_spiral page has doubled to almost half a million followers in the last six months, while the @ joan.of.arca account has grown by 250 percent to over 14,100 followers in the last two months, according to Instagram data.
According to the analysis company SensorTower, the number of installations of Whisper, the app that was launched about five years ago as a way to anonymously share secrets, has also skyrocketed.
The postponement has been a blessing for Instagram as it duels with TikTok, the short-form video app for young users. While TikTok brought many memes to popular culture, newer memes – like “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss,” a phrase intended to poke fun at millennial culture – gained popularity early on on text-heavy Instagram pages before they hit TikTok became mainstream.
“Instagram Create Mode posts are definitely what is trending for people aged 18 to 23,” said Shaden Ahadi, 21, who runs the @mybloodyvirginia Instagram account with several friends. “People who have been regular TikTok users use Instagram more.”
The shift to text-heavy memes on Instagram began about a year ago, users said.
At the start of the pandemic last summer, screenshots of the overly serious Facebook status updates made by people on meme accounts became popular which made fun of them. However, many young users said they don’t need to log into Facebook to create or find the status updates.
Instead, some of them turned to the Whisper app, which allows anyone to quickly post text over an image that can be auto-generated or uploaded from your phone. Others took advantage of Instagram’s creation mode tools, which also make it easy to create a text post with just a few clicks. Confessional, overly personal messages paired with apparently incoherent images provided an additional layer of humor and irony.
“The dissonance between the photo and the text on Whisper appeals to people,” said Anna Mariani, 19, a creator who co-runs the @ this.and.a.blaernt Instagram page.
Whisper did not respond to requests for comment.
Ricky Sans, Instagram’s strategic partner manager for memes, said the creation mode tools weren’t designed for text-heavy memes, but “we love seeing the creativity reinterpreting a tool to aid expression and communication.”
However, some meme creators said that Instagram was missing as their pages grew in popularity. Jackie Kendall, 20, said she got two meme accounts banned from the app – she wasn’t told why – and is appealing a third ban.
“I couldn’t tell if Instagram was cracking down on me or if people were targeting my posts and reporting them,” she said. “I think Instagram needs to work a lot better at understanding meme pages and communicating with them.”
The relationship between meme creators and Instagram has long been strained. In 2019, Instagram meme creators tried to unionize to force the company to better address their support requests and issues like bans. (Mr. Sans was hired later that year.)
In April Instagram hosted a “meme summit” at which Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, answered questions from makers. Still, few popular text-heavy meme sites claim to have heard of the company since then, despite efforts to contact the platform.
In a statement, Instagram said, “We hear and sympathize with their concerns and we aim to work with as many meme makers as possible to ensure they receive quality support.”
Many text-heavy meme makers said they banded together to support each other.
“We have meme families,” said Misha Takeo, 16, who runs the @kawaiicuteidols account. Established creators, known as “nepotism parents”, form networks in which they mentor, repost and tag smaller creators known as “nepotism babies”.
Some users have also built their own audience from cleverly written comments under the posts on the meme pages. Known as Mega Commenters, they have increased the virality of the meme pages in Instagram’s feed algorithm.
Nate Robbin, 20, a college junior in Florida, said he spent eight months commenting on text-heavy memes on Instagram and always gets the top commentary on posts from “the key players in every community.” He called himself “the niche internet micro-celeb of the ironic posting community”.
Mr. Robbin was the first to comment on Ms. Love’s latest Instagram post referring to this community. “I said, ‘Sister, she’s doing this again,'” he said. “A good comment can not only increase the interaction with a post, but also contribute to the joke itself and make the post more fun overall.”
His comment has over 3,000 likes.
Ms. Brennan, the meme librarian, said the rise of Instagram’s text-heavy meme pages is reminiscent of the early years of Tumblr, the blogging platform popular in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
“Gen Z is rediscovering and updating the old Internet,” she said.