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.
There’s a precedent for this: Erotic models have long offered “Premium Snapchat” subscriptions as a jerry-rigged but safer way to sell nude photography to a curated customer base. (An Instagram spokesperson says the company has no plans to add its own on-platform payment options.) At any rate, Wiley argues that the only weird thing about these arrangements should be the name Instagram chose for the feature. “In calling it Close Friends, Instagram is making it creepier than it has to be,” she says. “It’s not really Close Friends; it’s gated content. Influencers have just figured out a way to hack [the feature] into something that fits in with their business model,” she adds.
Close Friends was introduced in November 2018 as a way to help users deal with context collapse—the uncomfortable reality that not everything a person might post will be received the same way by everyone who could stumble across it. (And, more uncomfortable, for Instagram: that this might cause people to post less.) Employers and admissions officers typically lack a reverence for thirst traps and deep-fried memes; influencers with the incentive to appeal to a broad audience can’t drop the mask or post in-jokes to their actual friends. Inspired by the years-long rise of secret, secondary “finsta” accounts, Close Friends was also a transparent move to recapture the interest of young people who consider Snapchat the best safe space for content they don’t want parents and teachers and lurking weirdos to see.
It wasn’t really supposed to be about money for anyone other than Instagram, but as with Facebook’s before it, Instagram’s choice to officially brand the word friend is not a neutral one. Designating a type of relationship as a feature of an app is going to have strange consequences.
The perfect case study of the implications of Close Friends subscriptions is Caroline Calloway. Calloway, the influencer famous for extremely long captions about her improbably charmed and romantic life (and more recently for a prolonged and confusing debate about whether she’s a scammer or just a mess), started offering her 797,000 followers the option of exclusive paid access to her Close Friends list in August.
Followers who paid $2 a month would become Close Friends, in the Instagram definition of the word, and those who paid $100 a month would become Closest Friends—meaning they would also get a one-hour monthly Skype call. (Calloway offered only 20 spots in the latter group because “there are only so many hours in a month.”) She currently has 342 Close Friends, and her Patreon page promises that when she hits 400 she’ll do an exclusive “orchid hair tutorial.”
As with everything Calloway has done in the past several months, the move was controversial. “Every time I think that Caroline Calloway can’t top her current shenanigans, she just does,” one follower tweeted. “She’s selling friendship on Patreon. Friendship!” Two days into the Close Friends experiment, Calloway posted a photo of her manager and his assistant manually adding people to her Close Friends list for her, which seemed to undercut the friendship proposition even further. (Calloway did not respond to an interview request.)
Mina Hughes, a 22-year-old student in Texas, told me she subscribed out of irrepressible curiosity. Given the extreme intimacy of all that Calloway had already shared, she asked, “How could I not want to see what she deems private enough to put behind a paywall?” But Calloway hasn’t posted much since the first week of the fee, according to Hughes, and most of the content showed up again on her public story later.
“I want to cancel it because it’s ridiculous to keep giving her my money that I actually work for,” Hughes said. But she’s still holding out hope—soon Calloway is going to post something truly bizarre and spectacular, and only a few hundred people will see it.
Dana Andersen, also 22, and a musician in northwest England, told me she has no regrets whatsoever about subscribing to Calloway’s stories. She’s even written about it on her blog. Being one of Calloway’s Close Friends feels like being part of a private club, and even though she understands it’s an illusion, she argued, there’s no reason to deny herself an illusion that feels this good.
She probably wouldn’t pay to be a Close Friend for anyone else, she said—similar content from any other influencer would feel “fake.” It’s a distinction that’s only as irrational as any other statement a person could make about choosing how to distribute attention and affection. Calloway, for all her flaws, is a real person in Andersen’s eyes: a sincere disaster, and a worthy cause. “I pay Caroline Calloway the money I earn from my own creative pursuits each month, because I enjoy knowing that some of the money has made its way to Caroline for her to spend on orchids and paint and wine with her crush,” she writes on her blog.
But for the influencers selling close friendship, all that intimacy is an obligation.
Ashley Torres, a fashion and travel influencer, says the struggle of providing paid Close Friends content is that her life is “already an open book.” Coming up with something extra can only mean getting more and more personal. She now shares her morning coffee with Close Friends, giving an “unscripted and unedited” chat about what’s happening in her life. Torres’s account, @everydaypursuits, has more than 200,000 followers, though so far just 30 people have signed up to pay $6 a month to be what she refers to as a “BFF.” “Let’s make this official, GF!” her Patreon reads.
For the monthly fee, a “BFF” gets added to Torres’ Close Friends list, where she provides a laundry list of intimate perks, such as “bonus IG stories, exclusive weekend coffee talks, beauty giveaways, Starbucks [gift card] love, and more!” including priority status in Torres’s direct-messages inbox, invitations to coffee dates if she ever stops by a follower’s city, and “extra content” about Andy, her husband. The note signs off “Love you, mean it!”
Love you, mean it?
Sure. Robby Stein, a product lead for Instagram, has said that “a good chunk” of users add about 20 people on their Close Friends lists, while people who have very large followings often add hundreds, “because that really represents, to them, friends.”
Though the idea of turning a personality into a personal brand—which can be sold as a product with value determined in the same way as any other—is not new, this iteration of the practice is a little glitchy and disorienting. Regular people without large followings are now quipping regularly about charging their real friends for access to their best content, implying a self-aware and self-mocking—but not altogether insincere—normalization of the idea that all forms of expression and relation can and possibly should be monetized. Is the difference really just semantics?
As it turns out, most people who tweet about charging for Close Friends access are joking—or, they’re joking unless someone wants to take it seriously. Jasmine Brooks, a 23-year-old actor in Boston who asked for just $1 and included her Venmo name in her tweets, told me, “I did make that tweet as a joke, but I kind of was like, you know, jokes have truth to them. If someone did this I wouldn’t be mad. I would have accepted gladly.”
Extrapolating a bit, the joke is also that plenty of people pay for intimate details of the lives of others who seem to be, at first glance, just anyone. Last December, The New York Times profiled the live-streamer Jovan Hill, who refers to his work as a “gay, broke diary,” and also wouldn’t call it work. His shtick is more like post-webcam camgirl, or self-aware Truman Show—he’s creating an alternate universe where there’s nothing to do but talk and lie down. As such, he mostly just wanders around Los Angeles or sits in his apartment, talking to followers who love his voice and presence so much that they’re willing to buy all of his time. They pay his rent. They want him to live comfortably. Individually, they might lead financially unstable lives, but together they can create security for one likable person—an idea as lovely as it is dark. For $10 a month, they get access to a private Instagram and priority treatment in his inbox. “[This] tier includes me trying my best to learn your name,” the description on Patreon reads. For $50 a month, followers can iMessage and FaceTime with Hill, and maybe get lunch with him if he ever finds himself in their city.
“I’m very poor today,” he’s fond of announcing, which is not so strange a thing to say online in a moment when all the cool kids are talking about how broke they are. As members of the Millennial and Gen Z generations are fond of reminding everyone: They didn’t do anything in particular to deserve a broken economy, crippling student debt, and bad jobs. Half-ironically monetizing friendship isn’t illogical under these conditions.
“I don’t think making money off of your face or body is bad at all, but I don’t like that we have to be like, ‘I’m fucking broke; save me,’” says Addie Presson, a New York City caregiver who has also tweeted a tongue-in-cheek request for Close Friends subscriber fees. “In a way, I’m glad that we can be so open about money, but I also think culturally we’re really desperate. It’s an indication of generationally where we’re at.”
Here, the act of buying and selling Close Friends doesn’t look so petty—you get the feeling that the same handful of Venmo dollars is being passed around and around between extremely online people, the way a leaf blower might be in perpetual rotation between physical neighbors. It’s more or less irrelevant whose hands the money is in at any isolated moment. What’s two bucks a month among friends?