The “Chaos Follow” Makes Staying on Social Media Worth It

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Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

I went through a rough time last month—my chaos follow was taking a break. He does this occasionally, saying he’ll be off Instagram until a specific date. Sometimes he follows through, but there have been times, in his inimitable chaotic fashion, that restaurateur Keith McNally will suddenly start posting on the app before the promised return date, and everything will feel normal again. This last time around, he posted at the end of February that he’d be taking off until May 1st and nobody should try to contact him. Then, sort of like Jesus, he returned just in time for Easter at the end of March. McNally had risen!

McNally’s social media use earns the cliche comparison to a roller coaster ride. It’s up, it’s down, there are loops and parts that make you feel queasy, except the difference between a trip to Six Flags and @keithmcnallynyc is you don’t have to pay to look at his Instagram and there’s nobody (that I know of) at the theme park who will suddenly just start talking about their vasectomy. Sometimes he’s low-key, posting a picture of one of his Manhattan restaurants like Balthazar or Pastis during dinner or perhaps an older shot of one of his older spots that he closed 10 or 15 years ago accompanied by a novella of a caption about the place. I like those posts, but what I live for is McNally’s unique ability to become the main character on Instagram, a place on the Internet usually reserved for influencers, fit pics, cute pets, and your enemies from high school who are all on private.

There have been times when McNally has made actual news with his posts, like the time he banned Graydon Carter from his establishments over Instagram because Carter and his party didn’t show up for a lunch reservation at McNally’s Morandi. James Corden felt McNally’s social media wrath after the former Late Late Show host allegedly was not just rude to the staff at Balthazar, but “the most abusive customer” in the famed SoHo restaurant’s history. Whether it’s his Woody Allen fanboying or posting a photo of Ghislaine Maxwell with a caption saying “Let's not rush to judgment”— and noting that she was “currently innocent,” in a post that ended with a Gustave Flaubert quote— McNally’s Instagram is one of the truly great wild rides left on the Internet. And I can’t get enough of it. He’s my favorite chaos follow.

The chaos follow is exactly what it sounds like: somebody whose social media is a mix of brilliant and messy. You don’t always understand their intentions, you can’t tell whether they know or care that people get upset with some of the things they say, and sometimes you might even think, Gee, I’m glad somebody said that. They’re not a politician or anybody whose words can cause real-world suffering. They’re usually Boomers, or even older than that—people who didn’t grow up or come of age with the Internet as a daily part of their lives and don’t always grasp that people live on and for being online. Usually, but not always. Shar Nims of Brooklyn tells me her top chaos follow is rapper Azealia Banks. “Her Beyoncé rant a few nights ago? Chef’s kiss!” And Nims isn’t the only one: Banks is so famous for fomenting online chaos that there are entire Reddit posts about her biggest feuds and exploring the reasons why she's problematic. A few people posted examples of some of the more controversial things Banks has said, but in the middle, one user answered “Nothing. She's always proven correct in the end. She's our generation's Nostradamus.”

When it comes to people sharing what they love to hate about the popular people of Instagram and TikTok, Reddit is the town square with communities like r/NYCinfluencersnark, but as a non-influencer myself, I was curious what people with hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of followers consider a chaos follow. Thankfully, I’m on a few different group chats with some well-known content creators, none of whom I’d consider too chaotic. I promised I’d keep their names out of it if they shared some accounts they can’t get enough of. One with over 300k Instagram followers told me “I definitely follow some people whose content I find very annoying and cringeworthy…..but also find some enjoyment in hate-watching it.” When I ask for an example, the friend sends me a link to the fedora-rocking “motivational influencer” Davis Clarke.

Upon inspection, Clarke just looks like a bro—a bro from Boston, who says stuff like “let’s rally and have a week people,” and also “Cheffed up a bowl of bison…it literally has one ingredient, bison…nothing on it…cooked to perfection…let’s go” with a video of him showing off a pot full of unseasoned ground bison meat. Another person on my same group chat, who has millions of followers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, argues that Clarke is “not chaotic, just cringe,” but my other friend, the one who’d initially suggested Clarke, responded that it’s “[Clarke’s] comments section that’s chaotic as hell.” I look to see what he means, and immediately it makes sense. The call-and-response vibe of Clarke’s exchanges with his followers brings to mind Derek Zoolander and Hansel trying to break into a computer—but I grew up playing high school sports, so maybe the chaos is lost on me.

“I hope I’m not a chaos follow. I don’t consider you a chaos follow,” writer and filmmaker Alexi Wasser says when I ask her about chaos follows. For the record, I don’t consider Wasser a chaos follow. However, I do find her something of a kindred social media spirit as far as I can tell from her stories, a moodboard-esque mix of stuff she likes online and occasional video posts of herself just talking stream-of-consciousness. So it’s a little chaotic but in a good way. I think my own presence online is somewhat similar, but I’ve also noticed Wasser also seems to be a fan of McNally’s posting. She is, but also tells me, “I used to follow people not realizing they were chaotic, and then when I learned they were chaotic, I unfollowed.” When I ask if there’s anybody she can think of that she currently follows because she loves the mess, Wasser says no and echos several people I polled by saying “Instagram is already crazy enough so I don’t follow chaotic people on purpose.” Not too long after that, she messages me one addendum: “That being said, I do follow Britney Spears, whose videos worry me very much. But I did love her book. And I wish her the best. However, her dancing videos, wardrobe choices, eye makeup, and hair condition terrify me.”

We live in interesting times, and that sucks. It would be nice if things were calm and chill, but those two things don’t look to be on the schedule for humanity anytime soon. Similarly, we live in a reality that doesn’t always seem that real, especially for those of us who spend too much time looking at computer and iPhone screens. The Internet is a non-stop conveyor belt of misinformation, algorithm-driven pap, terrible opinions, and bad news, much of it designed to capture your attention for a few seconds at a time before you move on to the next thing. It’s here and then it’s gone. That person you got angry at or that meme that made you laugh comes and goes almost within an hour or two, but the chaos follow—who sits comfortably between infuriating and humorous—is a constant. You can depend on them.

The writer Maris Kreizman tells me that following New York magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz is one of the things that keeps her from throwing her laptop out the window. “You never know what you’re going to get. There’s that edge of unpredictability,” she says. “He’s the best combination of high and low I’ve seen in an Instagram account. He’s posting about high art or talking about Dunkin Donuts, and everything in between. Will he post something sincere today? Some slight off-color joke?” Since humor, especially the “off-color” sort, doesn’t fly too well on social media, I ask Kreizman how she generally feels if Saltz posts something that’s maybe outside the very flimsy boundaries of what some online pearl-clutchers might get offended by, from his (negative) thoughts on Steely Dan to a picture of a buxom cookie from a lingerie shop. Saltz is good at provoking people, but Kreizman finds it funny. “I am so judgemental of most people, but somehow I accept it from him because he mostly does good in the world.”

Although he’s wrong about Steely Dan, I also love following and reading Saltz. Another personal favorite of mine along similar lines is the author Joyce Carol Oates, one of the last remaining reasons I stay on Elon Musk’s website formerly known as Twitter. Oates is one of the great and most prolific living American writers, and I assume someday her collected tweets will be published in a book or saved in some university collection, but for now, @JoyceCarolOates provides an unfiltered look into a great mind as well as a commentary on our culture. Oates shares news, memories, and opinions, the last of which I’ve seen taken way out of context in the way people online tend to often interpret things.

The writer Eric Thurm—a friend who I often find myself texting “OMG” with an Oates tweet link attached—summed it up in his 2016 article “Is Joyce Carol Oates Trolling Us,” writing that many of her tweets or whatever they’re called now “are sweet and cute, if you’re in the mood for a pearl of wisdom-lite. Some are weird little aphorisms that, depending on your mood, exist somewhere at the intersection of funny, mildly interesting, and just kind of confusing.” He adds “Others are… less pleasant,” before going down a list of “bad tweets [that] have come from a position of near-total cultural insensitivity” that Thurm goes on to list.

Eight years after Thurm’s article, you still run the risk of going “Yeeeeesh” every now and then if you follow Oates—but, again, that’s real. When you get offline and go out and talk to anybody, it doesn’t take long to remember we’re all human and we all say weird, cringe, sometimes downright wrong stuff, but that is part of the human experience whether we like it or not. And that, maybe more than anything is why the chaos follow isn’t just fun; it’s necessary. It reminds us that nobody is perfect, not you and for sure not me.

Originally Appeared on GQ