I Let My Instagram Followers Dictate My Life and Ended Up 250 Miles from Home
Via a Scientology centre and a private drinks event at the Tate.
The author, where he ended up
I wouldn't describe myself as "great at life". I'm doing OK, but given the whole "highly supportive parents" and "no life-changing injuries" stuff I've got working in my favour, I should really be doing so much better. Each chance I've had to progress, I've fluffed. Like when I couldn't decide between two B-list London universities, so deferred, then deferred again the next year, then just didn't go to university at all.
Related: Instagram Stories' relatively new polling feature. While you might see these polls as a banal tool your mate uses to justify a blatant thirst trap, I see something else. I see the capability to change the world; to change lives. So let's start with mine. Why plough through life making shitty decisions for myself when I can leave those decisions to everyone else?
For an entire day, I'm going to let my Instagram followers vote on every single decision I have to make.
I open my eyes, feel that familiar trace of regret I feel every morning, and start mulling over my breakfast options: sad porridge or sad Alpen? But then I realise: today isn't like any other day. Today, I have 1,000 good-hearted people making my decisions for me. Let's break the news.
Well, I'm definitely not going to tell the tale I wanted: one of a man willed into a 24-hour coma by popular vote.
Onto the next decision. What shall I wear: a pun-based T-shirt riffing on Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Quebecois dish poutine, paired with a brown leather jacket and Georgio Peviani jeans, or a simple monochrome outfit that doesn't make me look like a Belarusian truck driver?
First one it is!
OUT INTO THE UNKNOWN
I step outside and am faced with another decision: left or right? The Blue Brick vegan café or John the Unicorn? The natural habitat of former advertising execs who'll pay in excess of £15 for "proper" cheddar, or the place their art school offspring pretend to be from?
Dulwich or Peckham?
So we have a direction. Now, a decision I face every day:
To limp or not to limp? Make up my mind for me, good people of Instagram.
Who'd have thought an entire day of limping is what I'd needed all along to be excellent at life? Thanks for looking out for me, followers.
Now, breakfast: somewhere that looks kind of wanky, or McDonald's?
Okay, fair enough.
Next up, the megalomaniacs of Instagram – now voting literally in their hundreds – have the opportunity to choose my meal, or delegate that decision to:
This random man, wearing a Gore-tex jacket and a hairline not unlike Kevin McCloud's.
Of course, the people of the internet vote 72 percent in favour of the stranger, and this stranger – who, it transpires, is a vegetarian – recommends the squash and runner bean salad, because he is a vegetarian.
Now I've got the food, recommended by the vegetarian stranger, do I do something I'd never usually do, because it would be considered by most "extremely rude", or do I seize the chance to do exactly what I'd normally not do, because that's what this entire exercise is really about?
Up until this point, more people have been lurking and observing than actually participating, but this choice has my inbox suddenly dripping with DMs. People are dying for me to hurt the guy's feelings.
I take a deep breath, sour my face and clutch my spoon: I can do this.
Light-headed, barrelling down the street, I'm beginning to think that maybe this isn't a great idea after all? Maybe people are going to use the opportunity to fuck with me, rather than help me?
At the gates of Peckham Rye Station, I stumble upon something capable of resolving my curiosity. Am I simply a conduit through which people can realise their most sadistic impulses, or was that cafe incident just a one-off? Surely the good people of Instagram aren't going to have me committing crimes?
The biggest voter turnout and winning margin of the day. Limping up the stairs, sweating through heavy leather, I fear for what lies ahead.
Followers, should I head to the Scientology centre in town, the Tottenham Court Road outpost of the objectively creepy organisation accused of various nefarious deeds by critics and former senior members? Or, worse, a ball-pit for adults in Shoreditch?
Seems as if people are as bored and/or repulsed by Ballie Ballerson I am.
PUTIN AND POUTINE
Coming off the train at London Bridge, it's almost 3PM. I still haven't eaten and I'm starting to feel nauseous, pins and needles dancing around the crown of my head.
Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but I'm beginning to really adore my thumb-stamping overlords. Swallowing a mouthful of unseasoned egg, I uncover something in my emails from a PR named Asher and put it to the people.
Within ten minutes, Asher has both offered some lovely advice and is on the way with some cans of Commotion Lotion "Buckfast-infused beer". Haunted by recent memories, I fear what the Instagrammers may do to gentle Asher.
Soon, I'm faced with the hallowed doors of Scientology HQ, and give my followers two options:
Ready to go in and try to walk out again with a just an unnecessary number of pens, I feel a tap on my shoulder. Clutching a six pack of Buckfast, smiling, is Asher.
Asher is a lovely guy. The kind of guy who could convince you it's actually a good thing you've just knocked over a full pint without having even one sip. I interrupt his enthusiastic pitch about a band named King Kong Company's free London Halloween show to explain my situation. As I do this, the sparkle disappears from his eyes. He looks pained. It's abundantly clear how uncomfortable he is about the idea of going in, so I throw him a bone.
We head in, and a guy – face like a Punch and Judy puppet – greets us.
Walking through the centre, I'm eyeing up every pencil opp. Asher nervously shoots questions about the history of the building.
I ask to take the personality test to buy us some time. We begin going through it. I'm ticking boxes without really checking; Asher is querying a bunch of the questions. I can't deal with this.
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Ten minutes later, the guy emerges, pointing at a graph, and it doesn't look good for either of us. We're both depressed, according to an organisation that has a foolproof method for curing depression, available at a low, low price. But I've got something much more important to worry about for now: pens.
Eventually, after a fair amount of asking, I come away short-changed, with only eight. Asher leaves, troubled – another casualty of today, along with a high school kid who DMs me that he has "2 EXAMS tomorrow and I'm here [and] keep refreshing to keep up with your story [instead of studying]".
Half of the people messaging are like this guy: entertained. The other half, with their hyper-specific demands, I'm worried about:
I make my way through the Turbine Hall and eventually find the person who sent me the message. As the gallery shuts, she leads me into a tight room – "You're still limping!" she laughs – and points towards the roughly 7,000 stairs I now need to climb.
I reach the top of the stairs and it soon becomes clear what this is: a preview of the new exhibition by Russian-born, America-based artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, followed by a fancy dinner. I'm instructed to wait in a side room, quietly, for half an hour.
I walk in, clutching a glass of champagne, and look around. I notice the director of Tate, Maria Balshaw CBE, chatting to a couple of Russian people in clothes that look incredibly expensive, and it dawns on me: I'm in the wrong place. This is the crème de la crème of the art world.
I notice a man, red-faced with lobster hue and a fantastic moustache, speaking in fluent Russian – in fact, everybody is speaking Russian – glaring at my "Vladimir Poutine: Kremlin's Finest Choice" shirt. Maybe he likes it?
We're about to find out.
The conversation plods along, awkwardly, until we're politely called upstairs to dinner. Yawning, listening to wealthy people making speeches half in languages I don't know, I decide it's time for my final move of the night. I look through my messages. I don't know if it's the four glasses of champagne and empty stomach, but something clicks.
I'd half posted this as a joke, drunk, expecting my followers to realise I'd already been through enough and so probably needed to just head to the safety of someone's nearby sofa and finish my day off with a pizza and some lovely, lovely cans. That they would of course choose the Bake Off option, because it meant interacting a stranger, like they'd chosen for me when it came to the vegetarian squash fan and the mystery Tate human.
But I now realise what I've done, and I think about my bank account, and the fact my bank account is not nearly full enough to afford any method of transport that will get me out of the country. Luckily, kind of, there are two just about affordable options:
I toss my phone down with ten minutes before both tickets expire on the booking page. Surely, having essentially ruled over me for a day, these people have developed some sort of connection with me? A parental responsibility for the person whose life they have been steering for nearly 24 hours? A level of empathy that prevents them from wanting to see me crammed onto a Eurolines coach, overnight, for eight hours?
Ten minutes has passed. I look at my phone: 695 votes have been cast, and there are nine in it.
I can't believe it. These people hate me more than I hate me. They're much worse than I could ever be. I put my life in their hands and, after limping for 8.4 miles (according to my iPhone) and dressing like a dad on holiday, all for them, this is what I get. A packed, eight-hour coach to Brussels, leaving at 10PM, for a six-hour stop-over in a city where I know no one.
As Kent A roads disappear into the darkness, I blow through my cheeks and tug my hair, debilitated. I would have been in Dublin by now. At this point, I notice the guy next to me chuckle to himself, large headphones on.
If all I am to my followers is a character, why not go whole hog? I offer the choice between introducing myself as Oobah or Georgio Peviani, the imaginary fashion designer I'd lived a weekend as during Paris Fashion Week a fortnight before.
Patrick; Georgio. Seeing as we're in dire straits, why not?
Between the way he kicks his legs like a child when he giggles, to the fact he insists I use his phone charger despite having less battery than me, as "this is your work", it's hard to sum up exactly what's so likeable about Patrick, as everything is likeable about Patrick, so I let him do it for me.
Later, after a night of nonstop tins and banter, Patrick steps off the bus in Ghent and we wave an emotional 5AM farewell.
An hour or so later, pulling up, stepping out of the coach and breathing in the sharp Brussels air, something becomes clear: instead of being angry, I need to thank all the Instagram followers who sent me here.
You've given me things I would never have had otherwise: a new friend, chronic butt pain brought on by all the fake limping, and a morning in a beautiful foreign country.
RIP Oobah's Public Instagram Page: 2017-17.