If you’ve ever tapped Instagram’s explore icon, you know the kind of page: a mish-mash of lo-fi, pixelated posts and memes featuring “Kermit,” or “Salt Bae,” the salt-sprinkling restaurateur who has sprinkled his way to Internet fame.
These pages originate from all over the globe, but surprisingly, Calgary is home to a number of successful meme pages on Instagram, including @daquan, a page with more than 7.3 million followers. @daquan is one of a handful of Calgary-based accounts that has managed to turn Internet humour and content curation into a money making venture.
Despite repeated requests, @daquan remains elusive, never surfacing to discuss the ins and outs of one of Calgary’s biggest meme accounts. Others were willing to talk about what seems to be a flourishing industry, though they refused to disclose their full names for fear of doxxing (having sensitive personal information used against you) and internet backlash.
“You wouldn’t know it, not a lot of people know, but there’s a huge market for advertising on Instagram and the names on Instagram,” says Sama, the admin of @heated, a Calgary-based meme account with upwards of 100,000 followers on Instagram.
Along with his high-school friend and fellow admin Junior, the two 22-year-old self-described “meme-lords” have managed to turn memes into money, racking up tens of thousands of followers and enough profits to pay some bills.
Internet memes trace back to the earliest days of the web, but thanks to the 2016 election, where Donald Trump supporters engaged in “meme warfare,” and the increasing ubiquity of social media, pages slinging the latest memes and their creators have edged closer to the mainstream.
For Junior and Sama, the idea for their pages began about a year ago.
“Hey, you wanna start up meme accounts on Instagram?“ Junior recalls asking Sama.
From there, Junior says the concept ballooned.
“Once we get big, we’ll start advertising for people, start doing our own thing with it, that’s basically how it started.”
Now, with their talk of demographics and audience growth, the two sound more like seasoned marketing pros than recent high school grads. But the internet culture enthusiasts have clearly been styled by the web, with Junior flashing off his Yeezy Boost shoes, and Sama sporting the typical hoodie and jeans.
Sama has a light-hearted attitude to the work, but Junior has the intensity of Stringer Bell, Idris Elba’s iconic character from The Wire. But instead of studying the drug trade like Bell, Junior and Sama traffic in memes.
The market for Instagram accounts has spawned a micro-industry of people that use websites like Fameswap.com and buysellshoutouts.com to complete transactions that can range from time-sensitive “shoutouts” (or advertisements for other accounts, often in the form of a caption) to even the wholesale purchase of another user’s account for an agreed upon price, often ranging from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars.
While buying and selling an account may be a violation of Instagram’s terms of service, Junior says that it hasn’t stopped most content pages from starting with accounts bought online.
“For a 1-million follower account that’s active, that can go for around $20,000 USD. Essentially … we started some accounts from zero [followers] and just kept on growing it,” says Junior. At time of publication, dozens of Instagram accounts were for sale on Fameswap, priced between $100 and $7,400 for an account promising 610,000 followers.
There are other options for monetizing popular accounts.
“Let’s say you have a 1-million follower account, you could probably sell a shoutout for an hour for like $100 US. You can do either a caption, a picture, or both. Once we get up there, that’s easy money,” Junior says.
That long-term thinking is evident in everything Junior and Sama do with their accounts. And while both admit that they’re not “up there” just yet, the last year has still shown them enough success that they want to move forward. Neither holds down a regular job, but Sama and Junior have grand ambitions beyond Instagram.
“I have an idea of where I see myself in five years,” says the Pakistan-born Sama. “This is a doorway that I see has opened up. I see the roads, I see where it can take me.”
Sama says that recent success has allowed him to start charging for shoutouts, with his going rate at $300 for a 24-hour shoutout, the highest rate they’ve been able to charge.
Sama insists it’s all part of his larger plan to one day open an online storefront to connect with his advertisers in a way that doesn’t cause viewers to flee.
“It’s just another means to an end. Before I saturate my market, my viewers know, if you keep doing shout-outs and you keep doing ads, people notice, and they decide that they’re going to stop following you.”
As for Junior, the Philippines-born, Calgary-bred meme-trepreneuer says he is going to SAIT for business, but he insists his future exists in marketing. He credits the contacts he’s gained from Instagram as the driving force behind that goal.
“I’ve talked to so many millionaires on the Internet that drove me to think, ‘Wow, I want to be at that point,’” Junior says. “I’ve worked with them and they’re like our age and under.”
As serious as the money can be for top-tier Instagram hubs like the cheekily-named @fuckjerry and @thefatjewish, the two Ernest Manning High School grads still maintain a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards memes.
“I was trolling the whole meme community,” Sama boasts about his ability to prod other memers with direct messages.
“It’s memes, it’s a joke,” Sama explains, “I would take watermarks and put my watermarks overtop of the existing one so that it was double watermarked and I ended up getting blocked by a couple huge meme accounts.”
While Sama uses Instagram’s direct messaging function to troll, Junior says that group chats are the key to Instagram success.
“All the huge meme accounts — like millions of followers — they’re all in group chats on Instagram. When they post something, they all ask the other accounts to like and comment so that it will pop up onthe ‘Explore’ page.”
Some of the duo’s posts include content many would find offensive. But when asked if he ever worries about causing anger, either based on content or copyright, Sama maintains that joke-ish attitude.
“What you have to do, since there’s such a large following, is you have to not care about whether or not people are going to like your memes. There’s always going to be somebody that doesn’t like your memes.”
The next time you ask yourself “who did this?” the answer may be two 20-something guys from Calgary.
Editor’s Note: The Calgary Journal agreed to keep sources in this story anonymous due to concerns that their business could be adversely affected if they were to be identified.
The editor for this article is Lauretta John, firstname.lastname@example.org