Just about everyone on Instagram has experienced it: Your best friend, partner or some acquaintance from college sends you a meme via direct message because it “reminded them of you” or whatever, but you can’t even see the damn thing. It came from a private meme account, one that requires you to request to follow them and be approved in order to see the content. And so, we either begrudgingly follow the page, ask whoever sent it for a screenshot or just never end up seeing the meme at all.
Though many of us may feel committed to the notion that artists, of whatever variety, ought to be compensated for their work, we still have the expectation that memes should be free. On both Twitter and Instagram, people are complaining (even by making memes themselves) about private meme pages.
Hypothetically, making one’s meme page private ensures that the content can’t be enjoyed without also following the account. In a survey of my peers on Twitter, though, only 5 percent of people end up following a meme account when someone sends them a meme from a private page. The remainder were equally split between asking for a screenshot of the meme in question, or just moving on without knowing what lols could have been had.
But why exactly do people find the simple act of following an account — something that requires zero dollars and a few minor swipes — so worthy of complaint?
For most, following someone is like an investment. Large meme accounts almost certainly won’t follow you back, thus damaging your following-to-follower ratio if you care about that kind of thing (I most certainly do). Causing further hesitation is the fact that we often have no damn clue what lies beyond that private wall. The content may very well be trash, but the only way to determine so is to mark it with your seal of approval by following. Following a private meme page, at the recommendation of someone else, is ultimately a trust exercise, but like our entire monetary system once we got rid of the gold standard, the world of memes is nothing without trust.
As a result of all this, the conversion rate from meme recipient to meme follower is low, but major private meme accounts like GrapeJuiceBoys, who has 2.5 million followers, say the tactic is still worth it — while the account was initially public, GrapeJuiceBoys went private two years ago.
“Earlier on with Instagram, when you had a small page and you were posting really good content, it would get on the explore page and you would grow very naturally and organically,” the owner of GrapeJuiceBoys, who asks to remain anonymous, tells me. “But when more meme accounts started popping up, the account was just gaining almost no followers. I heard some people were going private and were gaining really well. So once I went on private, I started gaining new followers at a much faster rate.”
He theorizes that this is mostly the result of followers sharing memes from the page in DMs with non-followers, i.e., exactly what we all complain about. “If you’re gonna see the content that I’m posting all day, you might as well follow me,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m on Instagram to get followers. Even though I’ve been private for two years, I get a lot of DMs from people asking to go public, but it’s like, mind your fucking business.”
Ultimately, the profitability of a meme account is determined almost entirely through followers. While a public meme may be shared thousands of times, there may not be an incentive for people to follow the account that posted it, and without those followers, advertisers have no guarantee that the marketing they’re paying accounts to share will actually end up in people’s feeds.
“Once you have more followers, you can do more ads and get more money from them,” says GJB’s owner. “This is a full-time job for a lot of meme accounts, so we’re all trying to get as many followers as we can. I can’t speak for all meme accounts, but if I wasn’t able to make a living from this, I don’t think I’d be doing it.” GrapeJuiceBoys, too, considers running his meme accounts as his full-time job (he owns multiple meme pages, but declines to identify exactly which those pages are). Still, GJB is his biggest account, despite the fact that he primarily uses GJB to share content from other creators.
“On my other pages, I make a lot more content. On GrapeJuiceBoys, I probably make one or two a week. At this point, if I were making all the content, I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with the amount I’d need to post,” he says. GrapeJuiceBoys posts about five memes a day in total, but still, “it’s pretty much 24/7,” he says. “It’s exhausting, but better than having a job.”
Even if GJB is primarily curating memes, it’s still something that requires time and effort — things he may no longer have were he to need a full-time job. It might seem obnoxious to need to follow the page initially, but nothing is stopping you from unfollowing if the content doesn’t please you. This risk is the small sacrifice we must pay to keep the meme machine running.