“You’ve never heard of ‘Man Crush Monday’?”
Michael Martin, a recent graduate of Musselman High School in Inwood, West Virginia, has graciously agreed to explain his class’s Instagram habits to me.
“Well, ‘Man Crush Monday’ is the hashtag #mcm. On Monday, you post a picture of either your current boyfriend or person who you would want to be [your boyfriend]. #wcw is ‘Woman Crush Wednesday.’”
“Throwback Thursday, Did you know about that one?”
This one, I know. On Thursday, my friends often post childhood photos with the hashtag #tbt.
“If you miss throwback Thursday,” Martin continues, “you can do flashback Friday. And if you took a selfie in the week, but you’re saving it for selfie Sunday, you put it up on selfie Sunday. A lot of people will like your selfies that day.”
Martin and his fellow graduating seniors across the country began their high school careers just after Instagram launched. They are the first high school class that used Instagram from freshman year on. Together, they have helped define the platform’s unwritten rules and decided what role the app would play in their social lives–a large one, it turns out.
Instagram is now more important to teenagers than any other social network. It’s the first place teenagers go for news on new couples or breakups; it’s where they can show off in front of their friends; and it’s where most parents still don’t go. Like the physical hallways of individual high schools, Instagram’s exact rules do vary a bit from place to place. In 24,000 public high schools across the country, you may find slightly different interpretations of what it means when someone likes your photo, what is cool to post, and how classic teenage anxiety over popularity translates to the literal numerical value of “likes” or “followers.” This is the story of Instagram culture at just one high school, Musselman–but it’s safe to assume a similar set of social norms, faux pas, and meanings have developed around Instagram at the high school in your own hometown.
I discovered this when I set out to interview teenagers with exceptionally high numbers of followers. “I think a lot of kids use it to gauge who’s hanging out with who, and who’s engaging who romantically, and what people are getting into,” says Mark Otto, a 17-year-old photographer from Dayton, Ohio, who has more than 16,000 followers.
Instagram is also a form of self-expression. “If I don’t Instagram in a day, I feel weird,” Kami Baker, a junior in Omaha, Nebraska, who writes about her social anxiety for The Huffington Post, tells me. “It’s become a kind of online diary for me.” As Otto says, “[Teenagers] are using Instagram to express who they are, in a way.”
And you better make it count. Be careful about posting more than one photo a day. If you’re planning a “promposal” (an elaborate prom invitation that may or may not involve balloons, posters, flowers, or dessert), you better have somebody ready with a camera. Breakups are an occasion for black-and-white selfies captioned with mysteriously sad quotes. Every day could be an occasion for a selfie. But please, don’t post ONLY selfies. And if it doesn’t get more than 10 likes, well, that’s just “a little embarrassing,” Martin says. Selfie sticks, however, are totally cool.
Like the detention hall that brought kids from different social groups together in The Breakfast Club, everyone–the band geeks, the nerds, the football players, the country boys, the artistic kids–is on Instagram. Pitching into its photo stream is an opportunity to tell everybody who you are, even if they might not otherwise ask. “Maybe the jocks don’t talk to all of the theater and band people,” says Kelsey Bageant, another student at Musselman. “They might not know them at all, but they all follow them on Instagram, just because they all go to the same school.”
Martin, who has more than 22,000 Instagram followers, is Musselman’s soccer goalie and two-time MVP. He has been voted “goalkeeper of the year” for the conference, and this year he made the all-state team. He is also gay, and, being from a religious household and a “pretty conservative town,” he was for a long time reluctant to be open about his orientation. That changed his junior year, when he slowly began to confide in friends. He went to another school’s dance with the homecoming king, and two weeks later, danced with the same boy at his own homecoming dance. But he didn’t tell the whole school he was gay until December, when he wrote an article about coming out for Outsports.com.
The day before the article came out, he posted a black-and-white selfie on Instagram and captioned it with an emoticon timer that showed, with its trickle of virtual sand, that time was running out. “People didn’t know,” he says, “but I knew that I was going to be embarrassed the next day.”
The article went viral on the Internet. For his classmates, though, Martin made the real announcement when he posted the story on his own social media accounts. He took a screenshot of a Facebook post from Outsports.com that mentioned his article–it had been shared 24,000 times–and posted it on Instagram. “That’s pretty much how I came out to literally the entire school,” he says. “[After the school dance], word did not get out too much [that I am gay]. Nobody gave me dirty looks or anything like they did after my first article came out. After my first article came out, boy–did I get a lot of dirty looks.”
But he also got a flood of support–almost 200 comments on his Instagram post alone. They said things like, “Great read. I also grew up in West Virginia, so I know what it can be like,” and, “Just read your story. Wished I had the courage when I was in high school to do what you did.”
After that, Martin started treating his relationship with his new boyfriend, Logan, like anyone else in his high school treated theirs, including on Instagram. He added his boyfriend’s Instagram handle into his bio line on his profile page and posted pictures with him for the first time (including on #mcm). “It’s a big thing to put your significant other in your bio,” says Martin’s classmate, Tyler Brewster. “It’s huge. Everyone does that. I guess just to tell other girls that I’m not available anymore.” When Martin concocted a promposal (which involved a Chick-fil-A sandwich and the phrase, “Don’t be a chicken, go to prom with me”), he posted a picture of that event, too.
At some point, someone at Instagram got wind of Martin’s story, and they put his account on a page of recommended people to follow. Within a week, he says, he skyrocketed to 13,000 followers (he now has more than 20,000). “It’s like a social status,” Martin says. “Whoever has the most likes I wouldn’t say is the most popular, but has a better social media presence.”
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Brewster says, “But I guess I would say when you’re a freshman or sophomore, you care more about what people think, and the upperclassmen, I guess they look up to you more if you have more followers. They don’t look down on you anymore. They treat you as an equal person. It’s kind of terrible to say that a number can do that. When Michael’s followers shot up, everyone was like, oh wow, Michael got like 17,000 followers.”
Musselman High School is large, with about 400 students per class. When Martin got big on Instagram, he says, suddenly everybody knew his name. His Instagram handle, WVnatureboy, became his nickname. He mostly posted photos of nature, soccer fields, and selfies with his boyfriend. But that’s not the only way to be big on Instagram. “A lot of people in student council use it for their elections,” Martin tells me.
Brewster is Musselman’s student body president.
He is also the homecoming king; the guy who supplies the body paint and the poster board for the “student section” at Musselman sporting events; and the creator of a Twitter account called “Musselman Maniacs” that tweets out reminders about student council elections, pep rallies, and spirit days.
On Instagram, he has more than 1,000 followers, but he’s not sure how he got them. “Sometimes it’s more extroverted people who get more followers, simply because they put themselves out there,” he says.
“I have had it happen to me plenty of times when people who I’ve seen in the hallways follow me, but I’ve never actually had a conversation with them. But then after they follow me, I’m like, Oh, well now I know your name.” Sometimes he learns more about them than that, like when a classmate who lost a parent posted a photo on the anniversary of the death. Or when friends who have been fighting post a photo together with a caption that says something like, “I’m so glad we’re friends again.”
“It’s definitely something that you talk about,” says his classmate, Kelsey Bageant. “You say ‘Instagram’ so much in high school.”
Brewster thinks Instagram helps his classmates have a more nuanced view of him as a person. “I’m involved in sports and government and theater at my school,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know that. So I feel like when they see me doing one activity, especially the younger students who are new to the school, that’s all they would see me doing. Whenever I would post something about a different aspect of my life, like being in the [musical], I feel like that showed other people that I’m a multifaceted individual. I can hold a conversation over multiple topics versus just sports or whatever. I think that makes me more approachable.”
His photos are from plays (most recently he played Link Larkin in Hairspray), in addition to his participation in the student section, student council activities, spirit days, and (of course) his promposal.
“For guys, I think it’s more of a ‘hey guys, this is what I’m doing’ kind of thing,” Brewster says. “And for girls it’s a ‘look at me’ thing. They feel pretty that day or something.”
“The thing behind the selfies is that some people need that instant gratification,” says Maria, whose mother asked that I not use her last name. “But I think selfies are just fun if you use them the right way.”
What is the right way?
“Not posting one every day and using them maturely.”
What are the wrong ways to use selfies?
“Posting one every day. Posting on different days but you’re wearing the same outfit so you can see that you took them at the same time. “
Maria’s feed features a lot of selfies–and a lot of photos with her girlfriends.
“It’s literally like you’re meeting someone through the lens of their camera on their phone,” she says. “You can post a comment, but a lot of times the picture speaks for itself. So it’s kind of cool, you know? I’m really into fashion. A lot of times I post photos of my outfits or new shoes I got.”
“My one close friend who went to Musselman, she’s an artist, and she’s always posting her artwork,” Maria adds.
For the first three years of high school, most of Kelsey Bageant’s time went to year-round volleyball. But her senior year, when she finished the season, she started posting photos of her artwork on Instagram. “Junior year, everyone is telling you, what are you going to be interested in? Where are you going?” she says. “And I started thinking about things. What would I like to do for the rest of my life? And for me, art is the only thing that I am really passionate about.”
Comments started trickling in on her Instagrammed artwork, some from people she didn’t even know. A few even offered to buy artwork, and she sold about 10 pieces for between $20 and $40 based on Instagram requests. “I think it gave me confidence,” she says. “Having people who don’t know you commenting on your artwork is really a neat thing.” She’ll be studying art when she starts classes at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota next fall.
“A lot of times you’ll see pictures of athletes and you’ll say, they’re really into the sports, they’re really good at it. And the same thing can happen with art, and you post it, and they’ll say, wow, you’re really talented at this. And they wouldn’t have known before without something like social media to show everyone.”
She still posts a lot of selfies, but in a way, they say the same thing as the posts that feature her sketches.
“It’s like, here I am,” Bageant says. “This is me.”