While Instagram may well have overtaken Facebook as the most convenient place to post photos that nobody really cares about, it still seems a bit like the expensive toy that Facebook bought (for a cool billion dollars, lest we forget) and never really bothered to assemble properly – their Thunderbird Island, their Metal Gear Solid 4. One group who are currently exploiting Instagram for all its worth, however, are a weird elite of fame-hungry teens whose Instagram followings are so large they could probably stage a bloody coup of most provincial British cities, if they weren't just really nice kids who spend their whole lives playing with their phones.
The kind of fame these people have achieved is one specific to 2013 – where someone can be completely unknown to the world at large, but still have a core, dedicated fan base greater than that of, say, The Pigeon Detectives, Editors, or any other band who seemed popular a few years back because their music was used in a 4Music ident. The latest in the lineage of the emo and Libertines-era MySpace celebrities from the mid-00s and Olly Riley's tween Twitterati (as if that was even a thing), the Instagram kids are slowly bleeding over into the mainstream. Go to the app's popular page and chances are you'll see one of their faces alongside Rihanna smoking a crack pipe or whatever crazy shit it is she does these days.
They are uniformly bright-eyed and clean-skinned. All the boys look like Bieber replicants and all the girls look like surfers' girlfriends. In five years, one of them will be the new Dermot O'Leary or Jameela Jamil. Everyone will know who they are, but no one will really know why. Benjamin Lasnier, a Danish J-Biebs replicant who was recently signed to Sony for no discernible reason whatsoever, is approaching a million followers, and his visibility counts as the benchmark for this legion of imitators.
Shout-outs – where popular Instagram users tag their friends' profiles to gift them a higher visibility by proxy – are the new currency, with some users charging IRL money for virtual shout-outs. Which has essentially turned any 14-year-old with an iPhone into a pap as they try to capitalise on their own existence. Except they're just papping themselves, endlessly, direct to their adoring fans, who all constantly feed their opinions back into an ever-spinning vortex of Christian support group-esque Belieber babble.
I spoke to a few of Instagram's new teen superstars to try to gain some insight into what it means to be famous for possessing a face, a phone and an internet connection.
Name: Brent Rivera (@mrbrent98)
From: Los Angeles
At 15 years old and approaching half a million followers, Brent’s images are dominated by parent-friendly selfies, one or two topless images and the odd shot of his dog. He is always wincing. Brent plays hockey, wants to be an actor and gets around 30,000 likes per photo.
VICE: Has your popularity online had an impact on your real life?
Brent Rivera: The popularity has impacted my school life more than my home life. Not a lot has changed at home with my family – everything is pretty much the same.
What do people at school think of your online popularity?
People at school try to use me for shout-outs sometimes, which gets annoying after a while. It's always about trying to be friends with me and talking about me, and it’s pretty annoying. It could also be fun sometimes.
Your bio says you're an actor and a hockey player. For people who aren't familiar with you, can you give me an introduction to your achievements in both fields, as well as where you'd ideally like to be in the future in terms of a career?
I've been acting since I was ten years old and I really like it. I've done a lot of commercials and print jobs. I've been playing hockey since I was five years old. I really love it! I would like to be a director one day as well as a rapper and singer.
Why do you think your pictures are so popular?
I think my pictures are as popular as they are because of my looks. I always get "cute" or "hot" in my comments. I also have a YouTube channel.
Great. Thanks, Brett.
Name: Alli Simpson (@allisimpson)
From: Los Angeles, via Gold Coast, Australia
Alli is a 14-year-old from Australia who's been corralled into Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun's stable of teen starlets. Alli recently moved to LA – because that's what you do when you're 14 and a wildly successful guy named after a mode of transport thinks he can make money out of you – and, as far as I can tell, doesn't do too much other than hang out on the beach and possibly go to school. And that's fine; she's 14.
Her bio says that she’s a model, actress and dreamer, but her main career at this point is being 16-year-old Australian singer Cody Simpson’s sister. So, on one level, I suppose it's kind of admirable that she's forging a way out of her older sibling's shadow to become Alli Simpson, Famous Instagram Teenager, instead of Alli Simpson, Sister of That Australian Bieber Kid.
Simpson is also part of a triumvirate of 14-year-olds, featuring Ruby Green (@rubygreen4, 98,000 followers) and Sophie Harrison (@sophieharrison__, 80,000 followers). On Twitter, they’ll retweet comments about how the three of them have a perfect friendship. So the pretty blonde girl thing evidently still has traction in 2013. Who knew?
Hey Alli. Do you think your Instagram fame is an offshoot of your general fame?
Alli Simpson: I guess my growing number of followers is commensurate with my growing celebrity, however I also like to think it has something to do with the quality of my posts. I definitely try to keep it interesting, fun and enjoyable for people to follow my posts.
If you could decide, what would you be famous for?
I would like to be a role model for young people. Everyone is unique. If I can inspire people to make the most of their personal talents and the gifts they've been given, then I have been a success.
Your friendship with Ruby Green and Sophie Harrison is interesting – how did you all meet? And how often do the three of you talk about social networks and what your profiles are like?
Sophie, Ruby and I have been best friends since we were very young. We met at school and swam competitively together. We live on social media and enjoy comparing pics and posts all the time. Being separated by the Pacific Ocean, it's an amazing way of staying in touch with each other. I'm so grateful to have the two greatest best friends in the world. By the way, our new thing is Gifboom – keep an eye out for that one, it's a lot of fun.
In case you were wondering (and I'm certain that you were), Gifboom is a new social media app that allows you to make and share GIFs of yourself. And yes, I know Vine and hundreds of other GIF generators already exist, but set aside some of your weekly App Store budget for this because it's bound to forever revolutionise the way you garner virtual approval from strangers.
Also, isn’t "commensurate" a strange word for a 14-year-old to use? It’s almost like she’s been coached to say that, or something. Weird.
Name: Garrett Haun (@garrettdwane)
If you want to get an Instagram shout-out from 15-year-old Garrett, it's going to cost you $30 (£19.50), i.e. the same amount you'd pay for a week's worth of food. Which, let's face it, is totally worth it when you consider you're only giving up basic sustenance for the possibility of getting some new followers on a photo-sharing website.
Garrett's bio also has a contact email if you have enquiries about sponsorship or business offers, so that's handy. There are more topless shots than many of his peers and he’s not shy about mentioning his sexual activity on his ask.fm page. But then again, if you were 15 and already knew what someone else’s mouth feels like on your genitals, you’d probably want to talk about it, too.
How soon after you joined Instagram did you start noticing attention towards you was higher than most?
Garrett Haun: Around a month later.
In the early days, did you notice any difference in your offline life? Like, were there any effects of being Instagram famous?
Not really. You pretty much just get asked for shout-outs, 24/7.
Do you have targets for how big you want to get? Or of what you want to turn your fame into?
I wouldn't really consider it fame. Like, I'm only known for pictures of myself, not much more. But I'd want to get around 500,000 followers and also use my Instagram to help sell stuff for the company I plan on starting.
What do your parents think of it?
My parents are chill with the fact that I'm big on Instagram. In fact, when girls look at me when I'm with my mum, she'll like nudge me and be like, "OMG, are you THE GarrettDwane?"
What about your friends? Do they act any different now?
My friends don't really act any different, but they always ask for shout-outs or to take pictures with me so I can post it on Instagram.
I feel for you. Thanks, Garrett.
Lucas Triana (typical Instagram shot)
Lucas Triana is a star of Lifetime’s Dance Moms: Miami – a spin-off of the original Dance Moms show that I'm sure you all have the DVD boxset of.
Lucas Triana is 11 years old and can do this.
Also, his favourite colour is purple.
The thing about Lucas is that he seems like a genuine talent. The dance-based reality TV shows have always arguably been the hardest ones to fake (you can’t Auto-Tune your legs) and the fact that this kid is, by all accounts, at the top of his field at an age when most of us are still setting fire to brick pallets in fields is pretty laudable.
Jordyn Jones (typical Instagram shot)
Jordyn is 12 and appeared on Lifetime’s Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition. But she’s also done major-market stuff, like dance with Will Smith at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, take part in a Britney Spears tribute at the MTV VMAs and appear on The X Factor.
Essentially, the amount that she's accomplished professionally in probably three or four years puts anyone who's ever done Strictly Come Dancing to shame. Which isn't particularly hard considering that, in the past, the show has boasted such omni-talented luminaries as swimwear model Kelly Brook and Aled Jones, a man who's been able to maintain a steady yet low level of fame, a kind of ambient fame, for covering a Christmas song three decades ago. Let's face it, Aled's probably fucking kicking himself that Instagram wasn't around back in the "Walking in the Air" days. "Walking in the Air"? More like "$wimming in the bitche$".
Both Jordyn and Lucas’ photos are extensions of their working lives. The boom in reality TV shows means that, obviously, more people are "famous" than, say, a decade ago, so it’s natural that some of that would have filtered down to the preteen market. So by building and retaining an active audience after their TV appearances, it won't be long before they work out how to monetise their existences (T-shirt lines, autographed mouse mats, whatever) and gradually become the equivalent of a lower-rung Kardashian or end up like Wilmer Valderrama, destined to spend the rest of their professional careers occassionally doing backstage reportage at minor award ceremonies.
Which, despite its obvious drawbacks, probably beats slaving away in a Hartlepool recruitment office until your heart gives up on you.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @afinebeard
More "famous" kids: