“I want to have enough clout to be recognized for who I am, but I don’t ever want to see myself like a famous person,” Rowan said one day in his bedroom. “I just want to be able to have connections everywhere and be financially secure and monetize what I like doing.”
Rowan’s economy was a primarily teenage one. Mostly he sold ads on his Instagram to other teenagers looking to promote their own pages, apps or online storefronts. He negotiated deals through direct messages on Instagram and posted about 10 ads per day — some in the form of comments, links and images — on his various accounts. The profits supported his lifestyle; he bought Saint Laurent sneakers, an iPhone XR, a Gucci wallet. He planned to purchase a Tesla next year, when he’s eligible to get his driver’s license.
Rowan’s meme account was not his first business. Like many teenagers, Rowan had begun leveraging the internet early for financial and social gain. In middle school he’d order stickers in bulk on Amazon, then sell them at a markup to his classmates by promoting them on Snapchat.
By the time he reached high school, Rowan had entered the apparel resale market. He would purchase designer clothes and accessories from brands like Supreme on websites like Letgo, OfferUp and Craigslist, then resell them on Grailed, an app for consigning luxury items.
Rowan also experimented with dropshipping. This entails setting up an online storefront that ships products from third-party retailers to customers, profiting on the difference. Before he monetized his meme account, Rowan also sold shout-out videos on Fiverr. His followers could pay a small fee to receive a video of Rowan delivering a personalized message.
All of these are popular ways for teenagers to make money on the internet. Rowan, however, was unusually successful.
On July 26, 2019, Rowan’s world turned upside down. He was lying in bed around 11 p.m., refreshing Instagram, when he got a notification: @Zuccccccccccc had been disabled.
He figured it had happened by mistake. His page had been wrongly penalized before; he’d regained access through appeals to the company. That wasn’t the case this time, and he wasn’t alone: Instagram had shut down dozens of popular meme pages without warning or reasoning. (According to an Instagram spokesperson, Rowan’s account was removed for violating policies.)