First @velvetcoke was “disabled” by Instagram. Before being tossed headlong into the digital ether, the account’s owner, Naomi, shared images of major key celebs who shaped the ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s, like Axl Rose and Alicia Silverstone. She posted upwards of five times a day to 940,000 odd followers, which included Kendall Jenner and Shawn Mendes. Each post was accompanied by a short caption with a fun fact or description for context. For The Face, I run a series on my account @treytylor in partnership with @velvetcoke called “Hollyweird,” detailing forgotten or lesser-known stories about everyone from Kate Moss to Kurt Cobain. After her seventh copyright notice, @velvetcoke’s account was greyed out. “User not found,” Instagram declared.
Less than a month later, @90sanxiety was taken down. Its owner James shared pre-millennium images of Princess Diana in biker shorts, the cast of Friends and a coquettish Winona Ryder to 880,000 followers on what author Anna Wiener accurately describes in her book Uncanny Valley as a platform that helps “[people] feel close to celebrities and other strangers they’d loathe in real life”. Instagram was made for this: sharing photos or nostalgic moments, of stuff we can all double-tap and reminisce upon. Or so we thought.
Within the span of a single month, two of Instagram’s nostalgia accounts, arguably with the largest followings, have been wiped clean off the platform. Well, @90sanxiety was reinstated after a couple of erroneous reports, but none of the original posts remain. James deleted hundreds of images, afraid old content was potential ammo. The account has been effectively disarmed; he is deciding how best to proceed. Naomi has been unable to recoup her account since deletion day, 15th January. “I won’t forget that date,” she tells me. “There were so many emotions when my account first got disabled. A huge shock, then sadness and crying, numbness and lately anger. Even though I usually try to present myself as positive and fun, I was going through tough times personally as well. I was dealing with health issues both mental and physical, certain people were leaving my life, which was a huge pain and I’m starting college this year so this whole situation made me feel really stressed and sad.” She has been fruitlessly trying to dispute the copyright infringement reports via Instagram’s byzantine robo-forms.
Since the disappearance of @velvetcoke and the dissolution of @90sanxiety, other account owners threading the nostalgia needle with hundreds of thousands of followers – @90s.violet, @90smilk, @retroclubkid – are white-knuckling their way through each and every new post, hoping their pics of TLC and Amy Winehouse won’t fall prey to the app’s Neighbourhood Watch for copyright infringement.
All of us follow influencers, celebrities, meme makers and throwback pages. The meme posters already had their reckoning for serving up appropriated memes made by other creators without credit. Now photographers are coming for the content that they, rightly, own. “Without a signed license agreement from the copyright holder, these nostalgia accounts are infringing on the copyright of the photograph – which is illegal,” explains Sarah Jacobs, a photo editor and co-host of the photography podcast Vision Slightly Blurred. “In an ideal world, all published photos would be properly licensed. This means the copyright holder has given a publication, or in this case an account holder, permission to publish their image. Licensing agreements don’t always have to involve money, so a photographer could simply agree via email to an account holder to publish their photo.”
While dashing off a quick email sounds straightforward, these pages post multiple times a day and are mostly run by teenagers. What’s strange is that these accounts have been posting without consequence for years. What’s even stranger is that the reports that neutralised @velvetcoke were apparently not even made by the copyright holders themselves. “After doing a lot of research, I’ve concluded most of these reports were not even the actual owners [of the images], and that is the worst part,” Naomi explains. After seven reports of infringement, Instagram “disables” an account, but does not delete it. A list of email addresses is provided in case the owner wants to dispute any claims. Five of the seven reports for @velvetcoke’s content were made by fishy-looking hotmail addresses.
“The emails that reported my content were extremely unusual and nowhere on the internet were they listed as official [photographer] emails. Also, after doing this for a while I already know how to handle situations like these, so it was weird that a bunch of photographers suddenly ‘united’ and decided to report me. In most cases, the artist usually contacts me via email or DMs to negotiate about a picture; sometimes they want approval while sometimes we even make a deal and it ends up in a promotion of their work.”
Regardless, Instagram is obliged to remove all infringing content, a Facebook company spokesperson told me in an email. “We require a report from a rights owner or their authorised representative to take action on infringing content. We take action on all valid copyright reports – irrespective of those involved.”
The issue here is that some of the reports are seemingly invalid. Someone, it would appear, has a bone to pick with these big accounts and is armed with hoary hotmail addresses. But who? Theories range among the nostalgia community from a single person with a lot of spare time to jealous copycat accounts trying to eliminate the competition. “Nostalgia accounts are one of the biggest trends on Instagram,” reasons Naomi. “Obviously, some people don’t like that and they wanted it to end; the easiest way is to target the big ones first.”
“I feel like we’re in some mystery movie,” the owner behind the handle @90s.violet tells me. A private group DM with 16 big nostalgia accounts was hatched in January to help investigate @velvetcoke’s disappearance and support each other. The group is called “velvet fbi”. And with @velvetcoke in purgatory and @90sanxiety teetering on the edge, these other large accounts are unsure of how to proceed. “A crackdown on pop culture accounts leaves me feeling overwhelmed,” says the creator of @90smilk, a buffet of images and magazine spreads dished out to 235,000 followers. “What we post is an appreciation of a culture that so many people grew up on, love and still adore to this day. A lot of personal time, passion and creativity goes into finding unique posts and I feel like not having any support when your account is deleted defeats the whole point of Instagram and what it stands for. It’s a community where people can share photos of what they love, it’s a space that enables creativity and right now it feels like they’re killing it.”
“I wake up every day in fear that my account will be deleted,” echoes one vintage account owner, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear any attention could trigger a takedown. “I just finished writing a book and am about to launch an investigative series and I’m scared that I’ll get deleted and all my hard work will have been for nothing.”
I joined this community in 2017. As a journalist, I was bored of trying to trick readers into clicking links to read my stories on a website. Why not, I thought, reach people where they already were? So began my fruitless copy-pasting of things I had written about. River Phoenix’s insatiable appetite for sex, for example, or the untimely death of Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend Jennifer Syme. My following began to grow, and my work was being read – really the goal of any writer.
That original goal was the impetus to post, sure. But it’s amazing the kinds of connections you can make through shared interests. Naomi became a close friend.
For what it’s worth, a team at Instagram is currently investigating the veracity of the reports against @velvetcoke after dogged requests and personal emails to higher-ups begging for help. If it’s solved, however, there is nothing to stop it from happening again. She’s tried to create a new account and start from scratch, but that was inexplicably deleted by Instagram as well. She can no longer log on. Velvey, as she’s known to her followers, is effectively finished. Posting on @velvetcoke was fun, Naomi asserts, but its digital death cuts deep on a personal level that is difficult to articulate. She equates losing the account to having her diary stolen, and instead of finding out who stole it, she’s simply asking for it back.
“A huge part of my identity was tied up in @velvetcoke,” she says. “I know I wasn’t talking directly about my life, but I shared things [that were] way more personal. I openly talked about my biggest inspirations, shared movies or music that defined me and listened/communicated with my followers whether it was a funny tidbit or something really depressing. That’s why I think my audience was so special as well. Unlike so many Instagram accounts, this account wasn’t about pretty travel pics or Facetuned selfies, we were expressing our feelings and admired art. I’ve heard so many amazing stories and made friends because of this platform and I believe that is priceless.”