A quick glance at Skyler’s Instagram account does little to indicate the 18-year-old is anything but a typical teen on social media. She’s bright, bubbly, Urban Outfitters catalog–ready. Her feed is peppered with the kind of selfies that have come to define the online profiles of millions of millennials and the younger cohort now dubbed iGen. Here is Skyler pouting. Here she is holding a copy of the 1975’s eponymous album. And here she is wearing that goddamn Snapchat dog filter
Welcome to Instagram’s role-play community, RP for short, populated by an untold number of young people straddling the line between uncomfortable identity theft and innocent fantasy, one stolen selfie at a time. It’s impossible to track the first incident of Instagram role-playing—that’s akin to trying to name the first lie ever told—but many RPers say the game began as an extension of online storytelling communities such as Wattpad, a popular browser-based platform for sharing fan fiction, launched in 2006. Today, Instagram provides a more organic, streamlined way for RPers’ invented characters to interact. Search #openrp and you’ll unearth more than 5 million examples of players inviting others to interact with the personas they’ve created. These accounts vary dramatically in visuals and tone, but the gist is this: Be noticed and gain followers. This can be done by portraying friendships between RP personas, creating elaborate fictional friend groups and even sharing cyber-erotica.
Building an RP account is simple. Find someone with an existing, routinely updated Instagram account for inspiration. Create your persona; in the case of the aforementioned Skyler, she’s “your typical 17 year old weird latina. Hit her up sometime <3.” Follow other RP accounts, throw in the community’s favorite hashtags (#anyrp, #allrp, #dirtyrp), and start interacting with hundreds of fake accounts from around the world. You’ll feud with some, fall in love with others. This may sound like Catfish meets The Sims, but for players, RP can be as real as reality.
In reality, most of Skyler’s photos belong to Maggie Lindemann, a Los Angeles–based aspiring pop singer with 2.2 million Instagram followers and more than 20 million views on her YouTube channel. Lindemann did not return a request for comment on her photos being used in role-play, but celebrity impersonation online is hardly new. The difference between social media devoted to fan fiction and Instagram RP accounts, however, is that the latter co-opt the lives of everyday citizens as freely as they co-opt the lives of celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande. They even absorb the identities of babies and toddlers, creating imaginary storylines with photos of other people’s kids, a trend whose creepiness has been covered by The Washington Post and Fast Company. As with identity theft, when you impersonate someone’s very existence, anything goes.
Role-play is an experiment. It’s trying out a personality without the penalty,
Similar to catfishing—which became part of the zeitgeist by way of a 2010 documentary (MTV’s spinoff reality series wrapped its sixth season in August) and peaked in 2013 when footballer Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was revealed to be fake—online impersonation often damages the person being copied, usually when the impersonator’s performance collides with the real person’s social or professional life.
In 2016, in response to growing concerns over catfishing, Oklahoma enacted the nation’s first anti-catfishing law, the Catfishing Liability Act, which allows people to file an injunction against anyone who impersonates them online through photographs, social media, name, signature or likeness. The act, which carries a fine of $500 or more, is enforced only in cases of impersonation that have the “purpose of harming, intimidating, threatening or defrauding such person.” Further, the law does not apply to “any online impersonation for which the sole purpose is satire or parody.” Thus, Instagram role-playing remains completely legal.
Depending on whether you consider imitation a form of flattery or a form of abuse, Gabe Mason is either a beneficiary of role-playing or its victim. Mason, who lives in Gainesville, Florida, admits he doesn’t know why his social media following is so large—his Instagram account, @6dad66, has more than 26,000 followers, and his Vines channel has received almost a million video plays—but looking at his page, it’s easy to understand why a teenager would want to be him. Skinny, blond and talented at taking selfies in bathroom mirrors, Mason could moonlight as a member of a One Direction tribute band. So many accounts now impersonate him that he considers it flattering rather than disturbing. “I’ve literally had people direct-message me and request photos to fit their imaginary narratives,” Mason says. “It feels less malicious than catfishing.” Still, Mason believes Instagram role-playing is likely a response to something deeper. “You don’t need to use me as a mask,” he says of his impersonators. “You’re beautiful as you are, no matter who you are.”
Mason’s comment implies that role-playing’s other victims are the players themselves. “If I were to make a guess, [RPers] aren’t accepted for who they are, so they’re trying to express themselves,” says Dmitri Williams, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication who studies new media. Martha, an 18-year-old who lives outside El Paso, Texas, is one of the role-players who have co-opted Mason’s photos. She chose to imitate him because of a deep-seated issue tied to her sexuality. “I am bisexual,” she says, “but it’s hard for me to express that when my family is so judgmental, so I thought I could just do that on Instagram. I don’t identify as a man, but I chose to be a guy instead of a girl because I prefer women.” Martha has been role-playing for only a few months but logs in to her account at least once a day. She likes that she can be someone different from herself in every way, from gender to level of confidence. “I am more of a try-hard than my character. I tend to overthink things, and I’m very paranoid,” she says. “In RP, you don’t have to maintain a reputation.”
“When they’re role-playing, they’re not really role-playing,” Williams says. “Young people are in an experimental part of their life. They don’t really have their identities set.” That’s possibly the basis of another negative side-effect: Instances of trolling and online bullying are increasing. In 2015, one in four teens reported having been bullied online. Anonymous trolling is easy, especially when it plays into imaginary personas and grows follower counts. Like Twitter users hiding behind avatars, RPers can receive positive reenforcement—and face few consequences—for participating in unsavory behavior.
“Role-play is an experiment. It’s trying out a personality without the penalty,” Williams says. But in the end, other than the fact that impersonation is morally dishonest, there’s little that distinguishes RPers from anyone else who uses Instagram. Our social media accounts are all manufactured escapes, ways to fantasize different versions of our realities. Not long ago, the diary served as a sacred outlet for young people’s hopes, fears, fantasies and idealized selves. But who needs to confess one’s flaws when one can invent a new, more popular self that has none? After all, a like is a like, no matter how it was obtained.