Gabi Abrao, better known as @sighswoon on Instagram, is “developing a language with the invisible.” Her page is half memes, half photos of her—eating fresh fruit, or trying out a metal detector, or posing in a museum bathroom wearing an incredible maxi dress, or staring sleepily into the middle distance in a satin pollution mask—often accompanied by poetic text about the past, the present, and the universe.
She has close to 94,000 followers, about 400 of whom are her “Close Friends,” a privilege won by paying $3.33 a month on Patreon. Those followers get access to exclusive “rants, theories, and personal updates,” including “silly details” of Abrao’s love life, big ideas about “existence and wellness,” and poetry and prose from her personal archives. She’s one of many who have figured out that the Instagram feature—originally intended as something like an image-based inner-circle group text—can also be used to make some extra money.
“We’ve definitely heard about it. We would recommend it,” says Danielle Wiley, CEO of the San Francisco influencer agency Sway Group. “We support whatever [influencers] can do to make money.”
Many of the Instagram users who have caught on to this financial hack are lifestyle influencers charging money for friendship at its most literal—broken down into its component parts, which are then sorted into various tiers of ascending value. (Like high school!) Others are artists and creative types funding specific projects, charging $1 a month for behind-the-scenes content on their cosplay or illustration accounts. Podcasts and YouTube channels with loyal followings charge for extra, more intimate access to their hosts. Former venture capitalist Jenny Gyllander, who now runs the product-review Instagram account @thingtesting as her full-time job, offers a $100 lifetime membership to her Close Friends list—300 people have signed up, and she’s now working her way down a waiting list.