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“Galaxy J8 has joined your Personal Meeting Room. Thank you for choosing Zoom,” read the email in my inbox. A familiar script; maybe you’ve received some like it. But this one was peculiar, because the Zoom room in question existed solely as a classroom, and I’m not teaching this semester, particularly not at 8:34 on a Monday evening. (Do I know anyone who uses a Samsung Galaxy J8?) This is the moment when the horror film audience screams at the screen "close your computer! Do literally anything else!" But this wasn't a horror film (right?). I clicked to enter the meeting.
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My friend Rebecca and I play a game from time to time. The game doesn’t have a name but I’ll name it right now: Low-Stakes Sleuth. I’m not certain of its origin story but this one feels about right: in college during on-campus interview season, Rebecca and I would often sit in coffee shops and eavesdrop on the 1-on-1’s around us, guessing out loud whether the participants were on a date or a job interview.
The sport was often more difficult than you’d expect. Dates and job interviews have a similar lilt. Faux confidence, punctuated with nothing but holding. Hands hold takeout coffee mugs for dear life, afraid to do anything else. Hair, after a semester without grooming, holds its shape, as if resuscitated by coffee. Handshakes hold more suggestive power than a signifier ought to. Language holds itself to a script. What have you done; what do you dream of doing?
We were finding literally any excuse not to do our work, but it was also an exercise in close listening, in looking at humans and remembering that we are strange, animal, human.
Years later we are still friends, though our friendship, and the games, have a slightly different shape. We live over 500 miles apart. We do not share the same soundscape, but we do share the same internet. So when we play, we take our investigations online.
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When I joined the mysterious Zoom meeting, camera off, I was greeted by a face that I did not recognize. The subject periodically fixed his already well-coiffed hair in the camera. Was this a scam of some sort? When he finally spoke, it was not to me, but to another man next to him, maybe his father. The sound sputtered, and the language was hard to make out, maybe Middle Eastern.
I immediately texted Rebecca, who joined the meeting too, without hesitation. We turned on our cameras, taking what clues we could from the pixels available to us. A sparse backdrop, a mechanical countertop scale. A low-resolution badge around his neck (zooming in on a screenshot and screaming “ENHANCE!!!” at the screen did not help). Artwork depicting an open book hanging on the wall, perhaps of religious significance. Wait…is that a clock on the wall? What time is it? About 9:40. So an hour ahead of us. Or maybe it’s 13 hours ahead? 11 hours behind? Quick, cross reference possible timezones with possible languages with countries where Galaxy J8s are popular. Open Google Translate and try to input their audio and translate. When that doesn’t work, type questions into Google translate and play the text to speech version of the translation. “Hello! What is your name? How did you find this link?” And unspoken questions too: why are you still here even after seeing our faces? After knowing that we are (presumably) not who you came here to see? That we do not speak your language? Are you motivated by the same burning curiosity as us? Have you too discovered the magical humanness in spite of your blunder?
We never got answers to these questions. But answers were never the point.
After several months in which most of our interactions with others were mediated by the rules of platforms: Email threads scheduling Google Calendar invites that pulled us into Zoom meetings structured with Google Doc agendas, we had encountered a glitch. A mistake, made either by human or machine, or maybe both, but either way, the mistake was unmistakeably human. In a world so heavily designed, we were shocked to find ourselves standing outside of design, or at least, outside the world designed by Designers. We had broken something. We were experiencing a virtual meet cute with humanity.
This may all sound a bit grandiose for a pastime that has "Low-Stakes" right there in the name, but more than once, sleuthing led us to obituary pages. On one occasion, an hours-long wild goose chase to find the rightful owner of the wheelchair that had mistakenly been delivered to my house ended with a conversation with the owner's grandson, who alerted me that his grandfather had passed away three days prior. The stranger from the neighborhood Facebook group who helped me solve the mystery almost ended up being a nanny to my daughter, who was born two months later.
It is almost as if the ordinary plethora of uncanny valleys provided by the internet — in which everything looks almost human but just off enough to make us queasy—is flipped on its head. The glitch shows us that we were less programmed, more connected, than we ever thought. At all times, we are just a single mistyped keystroke away from coming into contact with each other in states of platonic suffering or joy.
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I thought of all of this as I was scraping the internet for a specific kind of Instagram profile, call them anti-influencers — prolific posters with zero followers. I don’t know what I expected to find. Perhaps something obviously clandestine.
But what I saw in the accounts I uncovered was far less intelligible, and far more interesting. In one example, which I’ll call the_looker, a Polish man, perhaps in his 20’s, posts endless selfies, sometimes several times per day, all with the same affect: eyes pointed slightly left of the camera, the barest of grins, solid-colored shirts. The captions, at most, wish the absent reader a good morning or evening.
What do we call this? Is it a daily photo blog that tracks changes in a face? Is it a diary, albeit one with a public url? Close examination reveals that the 650 photos are not entirely distinct. Many of the same photos repeat, maybe with a slightly different crop or filter, though not with any identifiable pattern or logic. The slew of hashtags that adorn each post, #polishboy #polishguy #cutepolishboys #polishgirl #czechgirl #russiangirl #thaigirl #ukraniangirl #chinesegirl... suggests an account that might be used for dating or intimate dms. Or maybe for catfishing. But none of that would explain the lack of followers, the lack of accounts followed, the lack of photo variety.
“This way of looking," says Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing, "in which we are Alice and everything is a potential rabbit hole, is potentially immobilizing; at the very least, it brings us out of step with the everyday.”
We are Alice: beckoned, immersed, taunted, then beckoned again. No waking up from this dream.
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Jenny Odell has a name for this focused bewilderment: "attentional prosthesis."
“Curiosity, something we know most of all from childhood, is a forward-driving force that derives from the differential between what is known and not known. Even morbid curiosity assumes there is something you haven’t seen that you’d like to see, creating a kind of pleasant sensation of unfinished-ness and of something just around the corner. Although it’s never seemed like a choice to me, I live for this feeling. Curiosity is what gets me so involved in something that I forget myself"
Tech companies use words like "curiosity" in their marketing copy all the time. They want us believe they are (and perhaps even earnestly see themselves as) tools for exploration. But exploration of what? And on whose terms?
The account that I'll call the_collector seems to be a moodboard of sorts, consisting stills, celebrity photos, playlists, and movie clips.
The internet pedals in kinds of attention: envy, association, outrage, that maximize time spent in the app. But it's clear that the attention here is more akin to scrapbooking, journaling, or meditation. Its focus can't be contained within the app itself. It demonstrates, over the course of 4,556 posts, an attention to, a love of, Black cultural achievement. Instagram will tell you that the_collector has no community, but it is obvious that there is some sort of communion happening here, between the_collector and their collection, or the_collector and their future self.
For me, the fact that these accounts don't ask for our attention is exactly what makes them worthy of our attention, and perhaps that is one of the central things at play in Low-Stakes Sleuth: give anything the same attention you would give to art.
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Odell again (emphasis my own):
"This leads into a second reason to leave behind the coordinates of what we habitually notice: doing so allows one to transcend the self. Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known."
We all freely use the word "content," ironically or not, entering what we make into the online marketplace of fungible, consumable things. The tech companies like this because it is much easier to build a platform, especially one monetized by ads, when the data is consistently structured—when a tweet is a tweet is a tweet, whether it contains a meme, a hot take, or targeted harassment. When all possible human motivations are sifted and refined into a single need: attention.
In Tiktok's original form (known as Musical.ly), the container was "lip synching videos." But only after Tiktok became Tiktok, abstracting its container to encompass short videos of anything, was it catapulted to a perfect distillation of technology, user experience, attention, and profit.
The most confounding thing about the account I'll call the_exerciser is that of all the anti-influencer pages I found, it most resembles an ordinary Instagram profile. Selfies intermingle with memories, memes, and most prominently, photos of the poster getting swole. It even makes religious use of Instagram's ephemeral Stories feature. And yet, from the perspective of Instagram, it is a complete failure. The ultimate goal of the platform is revenue. And an account that does not have followers cannot drive meaningful revenue.
Accordingly, when we find a way to violate the terms of the attention container, as our anti-influencers have, our outputs become precarious. At any point, Instagram can pull the rug from under us, making our accounts more discoverable than we'd like, or genericizing its tools beyond the scope of our needs, reminding us who owns the platform that was ostensibly for everyone.
The worst thing a hammer can become is a broken hammer, but a platform can push an update to your tool telling it to be a tool that only builds celebrity.
I am willing to bet that Instagram’s internal analytics dashboard does not have a line item for users expressing themselves into the void, does not ask questions about how to make their experience better, let alone guarantee their survival.
Instead, platforms do everything in their power to flatten people to products of their functions. Complexity, the very thing that makes us human, is the enemy of production. Accruing almost 100 posts and countless Stories without gaining an audience is so counter to the way Instagram is meant to work that it is almost certainly intentional.
Anatopism: something out of its proper place. At once a mistake, an act of resistance, and a triumph.
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The point was never the answer, but if I've done my job, you're almost certainly hungry for one. Why do these accounts exist? Turns out, even asking the question can obviate the answer. When I dmed the_looker, I received no response. An hour later, the account was gone.
Call it the Observer Paradox of Anti-Influencers: don't look too closely, or it just might disappear.