A Weird Thing I Did: I Challenged Myself To Watch As Many Instagram Lives As Possible

Since its inception, I have had a natural resistance to Instagram Live. On principle, I don’t like a genre of entertainment that preys on my passivity. While I’m already-quite-passively scrolling on the app, a notification pops up to tell me “@jigsawpuzzle86 is live,” appealing to my curiosity and prompting a knee-jerk reaction to join. I have tried to avoid succumbing to this impulse as best as possible.

That’s why I found it surprising when, the other Sunday, I estimated how many Instagram Lives I had watched over the weekend. My guess: four. Then I counted: more like 17. I hadn’t hung around for long in most of them, just wanting a glimpse of the action. After that night, I turned it into a game: How many could I hop into in a day?

The experience of opting into an Instagram Live has that grab-bag quality I hadn’t encountered since fooling around on Chatroulette with friends almost 10 years ago. I never know quite what to expect or what’s in store until I’ve committed my handle, my name, to it. It feels a little like jumping into cold water, holding your breath for a second and then buoying back up to the surface, completely visible, all lurky voyeurism or celebrity reverence or boredom revealed when it says, “@edithwyoung joined.” You never know how many people are inside until you’ve entered, of course, and there’s no virtual between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place quite like a Live where you’re unwittingly one of only five spectators. It’s a surreal sensation, crossing the threshold and entering these Lives (literally—entering someone’s life). The irony is not lost on me that a feature called Instagram Live has skyrocketed in popularity, functioning as a substitute to in-person programming, while our mortality swims in the forefront of our minds.

Here’s what I’ve seen: Cat Cohen’s Club Cumming show translated to this new medium until my phone ran out of battery — infusing even its most banal, hiccupy moments with humor as Cat troubleshoots technical difficulties, trying to add guests to the stream but filibustering in a sing-songy voice. Something-of-a-beauty-influencer, a person I’ve never met but follow, going through her beauty cabinet and talking about a Byredo perfume. My uncle playing a song on his guitar, very far away. A writer named Laura Lane reading her work aloud as part of McSweeney’s Issue 59 virtual release party. Cat Cohen, again, talking with Scott Rogowsky of HQ fame, discussing Gossip Girl, which Cohen calls “a show about knowing about hotels.”

Playwright of Slave Play Jeremy O’Harris and SNL’s Chloe Fineman shooting the shit on The Cut’s account, talking about Bode pants, mini-trampolines, and the London Airbnb where O’Harris is staying. Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin) in conversation with a shirtless guy lifting weights who’s waiting for his “quarantine cutie” to stop by. The tail end of Kiernan Shipka catching up with a co-star of hers, I think—he has about three million followers. Emma Roberts and Karah Preiss talking about what they’re reading on the Belletrist account. Zibby Owens (of the podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time To Read”) and her partner, interviewing a writer and their partner, I assume. A comedian I think I like talking to a recently controversial comedian. Jen Gotch and Busy Philipps in cahoots just before the pub date of Jen’s new book. One of Busy’s daughters reads a few lines out loud from a galley, after which she and her mom leave the chat for bedtime and Jen shows the remaining audience her recently renovated bathroom.

Wine editor Marissa Ross hosting a Q&A where I submit a question, and then discover why this is a tactically wise format for audience engagement: It encourages followers to stay in the Live much longer than they usually might, to see if their question gets answered (mine—asking which natural wine I should buy from Primal Wine or Wine Therapy—goes unanswered but I stick around for a good long while, waiting). Three different fitness classes: one by Forward Space, another by Indigo Fitness, and a third by Sky Ting Yoga, though I don’t actually do the workouts. The last gasps of John Mayer and Cazzie David theorizing on relationships post-pandemic on Mayer’s recurring Sunday night Instagram show, Current Mood. Nearly everyone I watch is in L.A., because I guess that’s showbiz, baby. At some point, the Instagram Live challenge I’ve set up for myself starts to feel like a game of whack-a-mole, where I am all five moles.

The allure of the feature is clear: as an unscripted event unfolding in real-time, it breaks down another wall of transparency in the Instagram universe, as authenticity-obsessed as it is authenticity-deprived. Will the novelty of this mode-of-connection, which sinisterly required a global pandemic to take off, wear off? And if so, when will we fatigue of Instagram Live? Has it happened already?

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

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