Billionaires — They’re Not Just Like Us (At Least On Instagram)

What, if anything, can we learn from the richest on the platform?

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Quick question: How come rich people are so boring?
For people who have so much access to spending money, it is almost magical how little imagination goes into how they spend it. They look the same, dress the same, even fuck it all up in the same ways (in an illegal drag race, by “accidentally” saying something racist, squinting in mugshots taken after trespassing on a ex’s Palm Beach lawn). Even for something as simple as a hairstyle, rich women will all get the same gently tousled, glossy chop — I know if I had a billion in the bank, I’d be exploring the outer boundaries of what a hairstyle could even be defined as (this comes close). For every Prince who turned his home into a office-park funhouse, there are a thousand mansions that look like they were built to honour the Lord of Beige.
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Nowhere is this more evident than on Instagram. The feeds are uncontroversially nice, blandly attractive, and pleasingly symmetrical. In some ways, it makes sense. Instagram is a place where the rich should excel, because it’s built to in their language; no matter your tax bracket, Instagram is a place to document a life well-led, which translates in 2018 to money well spent. No matter their net worth, most Instagrams are basically the same: orchestrated evidence of the big celebrations, long-awaited vacations, and photogenic indulgences that separate long stretches of mundanity.
Frankly, it’s fun to examine the lives of the rich for the voyeurism. But I believe there’s something more productive in seeing how they see themselves to understand what’s unspeakable but seeable. Witnessing how the rich think about their world makes it easier to see the invisible beams and bindings that keep them aloft, some of us standing, and others pinned to the floor.
Recently, I’ve been clued into the fact that there are a group of rich people who sit even above the cumulous of wealthy banality who do not behave according to conventional logic. Their spending is not predictable. Their behaviour is secretive and chaotic. It’s a category of people documented in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy whose massive generational wealth belie their financial decisions: They have so much money that they could afford to buy out the entire airline, and yet it still makes sense that they’ll always fly coach. The same crazy-rich logic applies to American billionaire Warren Buffett, who famously never pays more than $3.71 for a McDonald’s breakfast (or $2.61 if the markets are doing poorly). And, earlier this year, I got a glimpse of it myself in the form of a Money Diary from Singapore of a woman whose household income was just south of a million dollars a year, but who bemoaned the extra $1.50 she had to pay in road tolls when she mistimes her commute.
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Recently, I’ve been clued into the fact that there are a group of rich people who sit even above the cumulous of wealthy banality who do not behave according to conventional logic. Their spending is not predictable. Their behaviour is secretive and chaotic. It’s a category of people documented in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy whose massive generational wealth belie their financial decisions: They have so much money that they could afford to buy out the entire airline, and yet it still makes sense that they’ll always fly coach. The same crazy-rich logic applies to American billionaire Warren Buffett, who famously never pays more than $3.71 for a McDonald’s breakfast (or $2.61 if the markets are doing poorly). And, earlier this year, I got a glimpse of it myself in the form of a Money Diary from Singapore of a woman whose household income was just south of a million dollars a year, but who bemoaned the extra $1.50 she had to pay in road tolls when she mistimes her commute.
These are behaviours I expect from my immigrant parents — not those who understand that money will not only be a given for their lifetimes, but for the lifetimes of their entire bloodlines until the collapse of civilisation. The value of money seems to only matter in the smallest and largest quantities, and if they’re spending money in ways I don’t expect, it would go to reason that what they consider to be worth documenting in their lives is different, too.
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I set out to examine the Instagram accounts of billionaire’s children and old-moneyed offspring from Singapore’s Kim Lim (whose billionaire father owns, among many other things, the exclusive image rights to soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo’s face) to Bill Gates’ daughters Jennifer and Phoebe to see if I could learn something about what happens to the way you think when you take the pursuit, the hustle, and the value inherent in money out of the equation.
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No News Is Good News
In a twisted quantum understanding of world events, the very, very rich seem to inhabit a world in which if it didn’t happen to them, it didn’t happen, period. Despite it being the middle of the World Cup, and a week within a year within a decade where global politicians seem intent on making their citizens nauseous with whiplash, there was barely an acknowledgment that anything was going on.
Not that everything was vacations and fine dining. For many scions, there were plenty of posts touting the sorts of uncontroversial charity projects that pageant queens pledge allegiance to on stage: benefitting rescue dogs, voting rights for women, and reading. But acknowledgement of the hard stuff was mostly absent. One sort of exception to the rule was Malaysia’s Ally Mukhriz who posted a selfie celebrating during Paris’ World Cup semi-finals win, an Instagram Story congratulating her 93-year-old grandfather for being elected as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia, and a post of a man waving a Palestinian flag with a caption promoting a iPhone grip attachment with a portion of the proceeds going toward a pro-Palestine initiative started by her grandfather. (“Do your part! Get your stylish Poppin’ Popperz now,” the caption read, followed by a smiling emoji.) But the way that the rich considered the news was so foreign to me. Whereas my peers and I feel battered by chaos (and screengrab news articles, memorial illustrations, and rants written in note apps to broadcast our rage), it was a trip to see people behave in ways that displayed their confidence in their control over — and isolation from — the ills of the day.
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#Sponcon Is For The Poors
The lack of news was one way that money bought freedom. But, the flip side of that coin was something I didn’t realise I would appreciate so much: Rich people do not behave like influencers. They do not care if they only have 500 followers. Unlike the newly rich and self-made rich, the people I found are not in the business of being famous. These were not celebrities nor household names (even though many of their family names — Gates, Jobs, Branson — surely are). They do not have press announcements, products to hawk, or celebrity best friends to show off. Out of the 50 people I followed, only one of them — Beverly Hills-based Dorothy Wang, whose billionaire father Roger Wang is one of the richest people in the United States and who appeared on the E! reality show Rich Kids of Beverly Hills — shilled sponcon for a teeth-whitening service and her own eyelash brand.
The Luxury Of Anonymity
So, what did they endorse? Surprisingly, there was little in the way of luxury products, hotels, or foods. That’s not to say that their posts weren’t filled with Chanel, Antibes beaches, or Michelin Star-rated restaurants — it’s that for the most part, they didn’t make a point to mention them like those who live the Sponsored Life. Posts documenting charity red carpet images were free of the typical laundry list of brand tags, which makes sense if these gowns were purchased, not borrowed, and free from crediting obligations.
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And when brands were mentioned, they were mostly from designers who are not stocked in department stores or don't show during international Fashion Weeks. I learned about British label Beulah London from Holly Branson (daughter of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, worth $5.1 billion), and Malay brand Fiziwoo from Chryseis Tan (daughter of business tycoon Vincent Tan, worth $1.1 billion), and Nigerian brand Toju Foyeh from Adama Indimi (daughter of oil magnate Mohammed Indimi, worth $600 million). The reasons these brands have a relatively low profile isn’t a reflection of their products’ hype, but more about its commerciality. These clothes are bespoke and tailor-made (read: you would only know about it if you could afford to buy it), with haute couture prices. They are anonymous to people who don’t know, and the most subtle way to flex for those who do.
And when Billionaire Instagrammers did post about luxury labels, it was never a Rimowa Supreme suitcase or a Dior “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt you see all over regular rich people or influencer accounts. During Eid, Adama Indimi posted a video of a box of Louis Vuitton dates she received — a product that doesn’t seem to exist for purchase online, and will forever haunt my thoughts as something I will never see in person.
Isn’t It Ironic?
What’s more, there seemed to be a negative correlation between the amount of money a person had, and how much irony they displayed. The ultra rich are disturbingly earnest on social media. Like, moms-on-Facebook earnest. Posts were full of the type of quotes that look most at home written on a chalkboard in amateur calligraphy. “Surround yourself with the people that reflect how you want to feel. Energies are contagious,” one caption by Hong Kong’s Yen Kuok read below a post showcasing her and a friend in cocktail apparel. A selfie by Malaysia’s Dato Muhammad Saiful came with the caption: “Change Your Life Today [shaka emoji] Don’t Gamble On The Future [crossed arms emoji] Act Now Without Delay [heart emoji fire emoji rose emoji].” (As an aside — you must watch Saiful’s 21st birthday party video. It is one of the most confounding six minutes I’ve ever experienced, and if anyone can tell me why there is a singing duo in matching jheri curls and/or random adult men in Transformers costumes, please @ me).
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This lack of irony was jolting. In fact, the most shocking thing about this exercise was how it felt to scroll and scroll and not come across a single instance of self-deprecation or performative malaise that frames how I believed most online humans communicate — especially when talking about their own privilege. Was it a cultural difference? After all, most of the billionaires I followed were outside of America. But American billionaires behaved like their financial counterparts, not their national ones. I suspect that this earnestness is a product of cash, not country.
The Beauty Of NGAF
The desire to frame their lives through Pinterest aphorisms and fortune cookie proverbs stopped just short of their captions. When it came to rose-tinted glasses, their photos were surprisingly real. I cringe to think about just how many times I’ve halted a breakfast before it’s begun to take two dozen photos at various angles only to decide that none of them were quite imperfectly perfect. My life might often feel off-kilter, drab, and plodding, but the composition of my Instagram grid suggests it does not.
But glancing at the grids of the super-rich is like looking into the eye of chaos. Each photo is edited individually, instead of according to one cohesive aesthetic. Most photos of groups of people were posed in rows like someone had just graduated. There were very rarely photos of posed candidness, and selfies were sometimes posted one right after another, a social media faux pas only beauty influencers are allowed to commit. Some are stunning until further notice — one photo of a Singaporean man (his Instagram account is private, but he accepted my friend request that explicitly stated I was a journalist researching the super-rich on Instagram) shows him perched on the side of a private pool. He's looking out pensively over a moonlit sea...but the refraction from the water makes his torso look directly connected to his knees. It’s a photo no image-conscious Instagram influencer would ever post, but one their moms might. (For what it’s worth, the caption reads: “The moon stole a good half hour that night.”)
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After a couple weeks of an Instagram diet devoid of news, sponcon, and irony, I left feeling full and satiated, but slightly queasy about what I had consumed — like I’d just made a meal of a vat of plain mashed potatoes. I had expected to see something new, and maybe learn something about what memories are worth preserving on public platforms. While I gleaned something about rich people’s lifestyles, I didn’t think I understood anything deeper about what propelled them to be that way. I had the sensation of having shown up at a random person’s family reunion without the ability to interact: It may be amusing for a moment, but without a real human connection, it would be easier to just leave them to their own festivities.
But I realised that, in a way, I know someone in my regular feed who Instagrams like a billionaire but is not one. My mother-in-law's approach to life is mirrored on her feed — messy, haphazard, awkwardly cropped insights into her life. In times when I am at my most cynical, I find myself bashful about how much joy it radiates, and jealous that I sometimes care more about how my posts are received than the moment that my posts capture.
The last time she came to visit, she snapped a photo of her son in typical mom fashion. It was a blurry shot of the side of his face against the front entrance to his office building, filtered in a way so his nose looked as red and shiny as a Rainier cherry. We all ragged on her when she took it, joking about the rule of thirds, flattering angles, and other bullshit.
“I love it,” she laughed. “It’s my son! I’m in New York! I had a great day and I want to remember it!”
For her, what’s beautiful is what’s in the photo, not how it’s presented. Super-rich or not, that way of considering one’s own life seems to be worth quite a bit.
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