Instagram is built to maintain control over its users. From its limited photo-sizing options to its longstanding ban of URLs, the social media network is much more concerned with surfacing pleasing images than it is enabling substantive discussions. This turned out to be a very smart business decision. Not only has the platform thrived in recent years, but the feel-good nature of the service has made it an ideal promotional platform for celebrities and influencers, paving the way for a burgeoning, star-studded online community. On top of that community, Instagram has built its most compelling feature yet: an algorithm that surfaces the comments of notable celebrities, athletes, influencers, and brands. It’s the reason we know that Channing Tatum is a fan of shirtless Chris Hemsworth, Kelly Ripa’s husband is “tall where it counts,” and Gwyneth Paltrow’s stripper name is “grey fried rice.”
There have been many noble attempts at organizing the endless sprawl of comments on the internet. SoundCloud displays its users’ feedback alongside the waveform visual, so listeners’ whoas and damns are pinned to emotional turning points in a song. Reddit creates a sense of democracy by allowing its users to upvote the best comments in a conversation thread. (At its best, this system encourages people to craft the pithiest replies possible. At its worst, it allows misguided internet mobs to assert that their hateful opinions are correct.) Many of the systems in between aim to honor every person’s opinion equally, only to set themselves up for an endless moderation battle with the alt-right.
By contrast, Instagram’s user-engagement philosophy is much more cynical. A company representative told me that, in April, the social network adjusted its algorithm to surface comments from “larger accounts to prioritize the interactions most relevant to you.” (From my own experience, the feature appears more prominently on mobile than on the web version of the app.) Alongside personal data points like your browsing history and people you follow, it also considers the number of likes a user garners and whether the user is verified. The result means that, more often than not, you’ll see a coworker’s comment stacked atop one by Beyoncé’s mom. Because they’re famous, celebrities (of both A- and lesser-alphabetical lists) are automatically granted a prominent place in any conversation they want. The early ’90s West Coast hip-hop group Cypress Hill probably hasn’t been on your radar much in the past decade, but if you are one of the 88.4 million people who follow National Geographic’s Instagram account, you will probably see emoji-filled comments from the group (or its social media manager) on nearly every one of its photos. I’m guessing the Venn diagram of people who enjoy both Kim Kardashian posts and Cheech and Chong movies isn’t huge, but you’ll still see their bad jokes below her naked photos.
More frequently than ever, otherwise unqualified celebrities have been able to leverage their platforms to influence important national policies. So it follows that Instagram’s comment-surfacing feature might be the most distilled and honest depiction of America’s problematic celebrity industrial complex today. The ability to be heard is algorithmically determined by so-called status in society. From a bird’s-eye view, that all sounds icky and dystopian. In practice, at least on Instagram, it’s incredibly entertaining and usually harmless. Liking and commenting on friends’ posts has become part of the human experience, so it’s fun to watch extremely famous people do it, too.
As Vogue recently put it, “comment surveilling is a whole new level of ‘Stars, they’re just like us!’–style intimacy.” It also tends to tell you more about a celebrity than a blurry pap shot. Mick Jagger might be a legendary rock star who once snorted piles of cocaine off of switchblades, but today, on Instagram, he is just another doting parent who leaves embarrassing comments like “Cool pic” on his son’s photos. Big Little Lies superfans all fantasize that the show’s leading women love and support each other offscreen, but Reese Witherspoon and Co.’s tireless, and maybe performative, Instagram engagement confirms it. You might be able to glean some things about young Lakers players’ playful camaraderie from watching a game, but seeing them clown on each other’s gym photos is far more informative. And because this content is surfaced alongside likes and comments from people you follow, witnessing a celebrity’s online interactions feels intimate, even if it’s not.
In our receipts-obsessed culture, the algorithmically surfaced Instagram comment also functions as a mirage of exclusive gossip. You can link a person to a specific moment in a YouTube video, but it’s impossible to do the same for a specific person’s Instagram comment and expect that everyone will see the same thing. Collecting and distributing these findings—Andy Cohen’s nickname for John Mayer is “electric cowboy”! Kelly Ripa is “down with the swirl”!—to group chats and Twitter feeds feels titillating, like breaking an Us Weekly–worthy scoop all on your own. But even if the feeling is real for a user, the exclusivity of the information is fabricated. Celebrities know that fans stalk their Instagram activity in the same way the Kardashians know that paps will be staked out at their local Calabasas shopping mall. Meanwhile, the system is literally designed to help surface that activity.
That’s not to say high-profile Instagram comments can’t be revelatory. Even if Demi Lovato completely staged the thirst trap she set for Henry Cavill in January—in which she liked two of his photos, shared a photo of herself in lingerie, and followed the Man of Steel star’s account—the spectacle was thrilling to watch in real time. Accounts like @TheShadeRoom and @commentsbycelebs frequently monitor these interactions, posting screenshots that hint at otherwise unreported feuds and relationships. (Chrissy Teigen, Cardi B, and Mayer are frequently featured for their magnetic, unapologetic responses.) On May 24, @commentsbycelebs posted an image that showed Ariana Grande had posted a smiley face emoji below one of Pete Davidson’s posts with the caption “Well, there ya have it.” A full week went by in which the account retrieved more revealing activity, then the couple finally made their relationship official with an Instagram photo. Anyone who’d been following the developments between the two stars probably knew it was coming, but piecing together the evidence proved far more exciting than learning that information in the first place.
Way back in 2015, The Awl observed that, for magazines, “photos are a major feature of celebrity magazines, online or off. … But the sudden glut of Instagram photos of celebrities and by celebrities, often with newsworthy text attached, destroys a set of common arrangements.” Every few months, Instagram plants its flag in territory that was once squarely occupied by the magazine industry. Now, it appears that the platform is self-aware enough to know that even its minutiae is a new form of content at which people will inevitably gawk. Every stray comment by a slightly notable person matters to someone, somewhere because uncovering digital receipts is far more entertaining than processing the actual information they contain. We might not really care that Gwyneth Paltrow thinks Tom Brady is “so fucking hot,” but it’s the thrill of the screenshot that matters.