"Check this man out." The Instagram Story is beamed to my phone. Sure enough, there is my handle, "@Luke_Winkie" in red-and-yellow neon, hovering in the feed of a meme page with 62,000 followers. The whole transaction took less than a minute. I sent $20 to Michael Macauley's Fiverr account, and he blessed me with the teeming virality he's carefully assembled on his Instagram since 2019. This is called a "shoutout," and Macauley is one of the many vendors on Fiverr selling them. $20 isn't much, but it represents one of the best ways to alchemize internet clout into hard cash.
"All followers are 100 percent real, we have very high engagement and conversion rates," reads Macauley's Fiverr pitch. I'm as vain as anyone, but I still felt like a chump. There are plenty of ways to waste $20, but the faint promise of empty digital influence is by far the most craven. So I was fully prepared to feel scammed and bemused with my investment, until a few stray souls decided to heed Macauley's endorsement, and add themselves to my own meager cluster of Instagram followers. Maybe there was something to this?
Macauley lives in eastern Tennessee, and like a lot of 23-year-olds, he's bounced through a small empire of social media enterprises. Originally he was a YouTuber, making videos about horror stories to the tune of 70,000 subscribers, before selling that channel in 2018. Afterwards he started a podcast called Biocast — which offers listeners feature-length verbal biographies of historical heavyweights like Cleopatra and Joseph Stalin — before breaking ground on his Instagram, DarkHistoryMemes, which tenders the sort of dorky, Redditfied internet humor that resonates in dorm rooms across the globe. (A recent post features the Kool-Aid Man breaking through the Berlin Wall.) In a matter of months, Macauley had a fiefdom of his own. "The algorithm did its thing," he explains. "No idea why, but I'll take it."
Anyone with even the mildest bit of social capital can take the Kardashian model into their own hands, and sell their clout to ordinary people
Macauley graduated from college last December, and is currently looking for a job in marketing or video editing. In the meantime the shoutouts serve as a decent stopgap, and he tells me he's sold 70 orders so far between Fiverr and people inquiring directly to him over Instagram. "It's really as simple as you might think," says Macauley, when I ask how his business works. "I ask them if they want to promote anything specifically, sometimes it's a website or an Instagram account, or their specific video ad, but I've had a number of gigs where they just want promotion in general and leave it at my discretion."
Macauley is willing to either post a Story with a swipe-up that redirects to a website of the customer’s choosing, or for a little bit more money, a grid post with the customary link in bio. (His highest tier gets a customer two Stories, and two wall posts, for $50.) This is the same gambit for so many high-powered influencers on Instagram and Twitter. Kylie Jenner, who is probably the single most dominant force on all of social media, famously makes over a million bucks for every sponsored post. The only difference is that now, anyone with even the mildest bit of social capital can take the Kardashian model into their own hands, and sell their clout to ordinary people. It's a democratization of influencer marketing; you don't need to be a multinational corporation to afford the premiums anymore. With $20, I was able to purchase a shoutout directing people to my personal Instagram page, no questions asked. The investment I made was aimed squarely at boosting my own follower count; paying an influencer, in order to someday become an influencer myself.
Macauley says the results of each shoutout can vary wildly. He runs an account full of reposted history memes, which appeals to a niche portion of the population. If you pay for his services, you'll have the best luck promoting something that matches up with those interests. This is true for so many of the promoters on Fiverr. Scroll through, and you can find pages dedicated to fitness, luxury cars, marijuana, and golden retrievers. Social media has crosshatched the world into an unnavigable network of subcultures, and the vendors have followed suit. To Macauley's credit, he says he works to make sure that his audience demographic information is entirely transparent.
"Promotions that have outbound links normally receive hundreds or low thousands of visits from my shoutout," says Macauley. "Oftentimes, my shoutouts drive traffic to someone's account for weeks and even months later. But again, results range drastically."
Riley, an 18-year old from Sydney who tells me he's bought a ton of Instagram shoutouts, agrees with Macauley. Riley makes woozy, internet-addled hip-hop under the name Yung Solitaire, (a recent song, called "R3V3NG3OFTHESITH,” samples the final duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker.) The shoutouts help him promote his music, but only to Instagram congregations that are willing to listen. "Some of them worked out and some of them didn't perform the best, it depends on what their audience is like and if they're familiar with what I'm posting," he says.
Sometimes, Riley likes to buy shoutouts on Instagram pages that serve a radically different population than those he usually reaches. It's his own way of diversifying his portfolio. Generally though, he admits, "meme pages do the best."
Ben, an 18-year old Fiverr contractor, says he works a day job as a bartender in New South Wales, and was blindsided when his Fortnite-themed Instagram account started multiplying right before his eyes. "I ended up growing to around 25,000 followers, after which I changed [my Fortnite account] into a basic meme page," he says. Ben used his newfound virality to juice the followers on his three other Instagram accounts, and today, he says he has a total follower base of over 100,000.
Ben knew the shoutout economy was out there. When he was starting out on Instagram with only 5,000 followers, he remembers a client dropping him a DM, asking to promote their YouTube channel. But now, as a genuine social media baron, Ben had the capacity to spin off his accounts into a legitimate hustle. Each month, he says he makes an extra $200 to $400 from shout outs.
It is the sort of thing that makes you wonder why we spend so much time equating self-worth to internet notoriety
He says the majority of his clients are "drop shippers" — people who purchase products wholesale from Alibaba, and mark the prices up to a retail premium on their own homemade Shopify storefronts. In this scenario, both the client buying the Instagram shoutouts, and the person vending them, are digital gig workers leveraging their own ends. Ben will provide a link to their Shopify, alongside an advertisement of whatever it is the drop shipper is selling. As far as labor goes, it takes no more than a couple of clicks.
"I get a lot of beginners, you can tell because most of them don’t put much effort into their advertisements," says Ben. "They just rip an image straight off AliExpress and ask me to post that, which usually won’t get the best engagement."
I also didn't see a lot of success with my shoutout, so I suppose that qualifies me as a beginner as well. In total, I earned about three extra followers after my purchase from Macauley. That's a tiny margin for $20. Clearly I didn't market myself well to the denizens of DarkHistoryMemes. There are better slogans than "Check this man out."
I'd describe the sensation of buying a shoutout to be similar to throwing a message in a bottle out to sea. The mechanics of virality remain a mystery to all of us. Nobody really knows how to get a lot of followers, not even the people who hoard them. But we all want it so bad. Bad enough that paying a stranger on the internet to share a piece of their algorithm with you feels like a good idea. That's the mindset that infects a client like Riley. If just one of his shoutouts results in the right person, with the right connections, hearing his music, then I suppose it will all be worth it. But more often than not, all you'll find is a slightly higher number, and the hope that the next time might be different. The vendors, of course, rely on that self-delusion to pay the bills. It is the sort of thing that makes you wonder why we spend so much time equating self-worth to internet notoriety, and why we've all bought into such a naked scam.
So let the story of Ben and Michael be a lesson. Both of them were lucky enough to be selected by the algorithm lottery, and both of them found yet another interminable side hustle, paying out in peanuts, at the end of the rainbow.