There are millions of Joshes in the world, and they all want my Instagram username. An NBA player has asked for it. As has a DJ, an investor, various so-called influencers. They offer to Venmo me, or sometimes to send Bitcoin. The highest offer I’ve ever received—from someone whose photos of luxury vacation homes and yachts indicated he might be serious, or at least a thoughtful scammer—was $100,000.
The first-name username is a strange kind of cultural capital. People are usually impressed, or at least curious, when I tell them I’m @josh. “Who’d you have to murder?” a new friend asked, after finding my profile.
I registered the username in 2010 as an Instagram beta tester, one of about 100 people invited to try out the app before launch. I didn’t put much thought into it, though sometimes I wish I had chosen a less desirable handle, because life as the Josh on Instagram is noisy and high-risk.
My Notifications feed is full of comments and captions for other Joshes. People frequently put a space between “josh” and the last name of the person they want to mention, which notifies me, not their friend. Recently, I had the pleasure of viewing a slime-green motorcycle thanks to the caption “@josh smith look at this sick bike.” Other Joshes sometimes mistype their own usernames, usually business owners asking their followers to message them about appointments or products for sale. One tattoo artist always replaces the period in his username with a space. His last caption included 40 prayer hands emojis interspersed with 40 needle emojis. Such is life on Instagram as @josh.
And yet my DMs are flooded with other Joshes begging for the username. Why do they want to deal with the noise of being the Josh? I decided to ask. In about a week, I received 142 responses. Teenage boys thought the username would help them get girls. Someone wanted it to boost his photography business. Another person wanted to gift it to a friend for his birthday.
After reading through responses, I did consider giving away the username. I thought it might be nice to pass it on, to let someone else be @josh for a while.
But I can’t let it go. I’ve shared almost 2,000 photos to the account. Longtime followers have seen @josh get married, move to the desert for grad school, and sell a novel. They’ve seen my travels in Japan and Switzerland. Quieter moments too. A full moon balanced on an electrical wire in Bolinas, California. My Sambas on the cherry-blossomed sidewalks of Portland. Ten years of my beloved late hound dog are captured there.
The philosopher David Chalmers says your phone is an extension of your mind. It holds your notes, photos, where you’ve been—your memories. “Your memories are mostly outside your consciousness,” Chalmers said in a 2011 TEDx Talk. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s stored somewhere deep in your brain or out there in the world. If it’s out there accessible to you driving your state, then it counts as part of your mind.” It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that @josh is an extension of my mind. My photos and videos and Stories and captions offer a log of my life. I can scroll through and think, Yes, this is me.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying to steal @josh. Every few months, I get logged out for suspicious activity. Instagram’s automated messages tell me I was probably tricked into giving away my password, but I promise that’s not true. I’ve taken every recommended security precaution. Still, I receive hundreds of password-reset emails every week, a fraction of which, I’m convinced, must be from people trying to take over my account. It’ll happen someday, I assume. Whenever a hacker does gain control of @josh, he’ll likely post Bitcoin spam to my Stories, encouraging my followers to click a link and send him money, before selling the username on a private market. Which do exist, by the way. Google “OG Instagram usernames for sale” and you’ll find out how to buy your desired username. It’s against the app’s Terms of Service, but apparently plenty of people are doing it anyway.
Early last year, I was locked out of my account for more than a week. I waited for all of my photos to be erased, the account wiped and reset so that someone else—that investor? The NBA player?—could take over as the new @josh. When that didn’t happen, I worried instead that the hacker was DMing my friends, conning them into donating to a fake animal rescue that was actually a front for his own personal bank account. What other unexpected detours might the hacker take? He could tell my friends I moved to Florida to work for the governor, or tell an ex I still love her. If that happened, even if I did manage to regain access, there was no guarantee that his actions as me could be erased completely. The ex might detect some truth in the confession, even doubt it was my hacker who said it. And what about me—would I relate at all to my hacker’s version of @josh? Like a psychotropic drug, he could have coaxed out another part of me, even changed my life completely.
But when I texted a few friends, no one had heard anything from @josh.
A week later, my account was reinstated, with no official explanation as to what had happened. Part of me wonders if I was caught up in the scandal where a handful of Meta employees were fired for hijacking user accounts to sell to hackers, as the Wall Street Journal reported in November. I changed my password, double-checked that my two-factor authorization was still working, and continued life as @josh.
I have friends who haven’t been as lucky. One friend with a very common name was separated from Pinterest after a consultant claimed to own the copyright. My friend performed his own research and could find no evidence of any trademark or copyright registered for the name. Another friend finally volunteered to give up his first-name username on Instagram to a hacker.
After the hacking attempt—or inside-job, or glitch; I’m still not 100 percent sure what it was—the stress of being @josh added up. Sick of being a target, I tried to change my username but couldn’t. All I got was an error message. I tried several different names, names no one could possibly want and that I was certain were available, but I couldn’t escape @josh. It’s technically challenging, I’ve been told, for someone with a lot of followers—I have 151,000—to change their username. Maybe that was it, or maybe @josh didn’t want to leave me. Whatever the case, this ruled out the option of selling the username to that guy on the yacht. In all likelihood, as long as I’m on Instagram, I’m stuck being @josh.
Sometimes in my DMs I find messages for other Joshes. A note to a former church leader thanking him for all he did; a letter to a friend on his way to basic training; a hockey team congratulating one another on a hard-earned victory; an offer to get lunch from a woman who met a friendly Josh the other day through a friend of a friend. I often ignore these messages, though sometimes I let the senders know I am not the Josh they are looking for. One time, however, the sender—whose handle I have changed to protect the oblivious—refused to believe me.
man its been awhile howa been
@josh: Hey, I think you might have the wrong josh :)
@ jocelyn_x03: no i saw u the other day
at the store
I was taken aback by her persistence. Most people who message the wrong Josh admit their mistake immediately. Maybe I did meet her the other day, I started to believe. But where would it have been? I was out of the city the weekend prior. I might have gone to a coffee shop the other day, but a coffee shop doesn’t fall into the broad category of store, really. No, I don’t know you, I told her. Yes, you do, she said. You were at the store.
Most likely this person was a scammer trying to befriend me, perhaps hoping that over time they’d get me to tell them the name of my fifth grade teacher or the make of my first car. Most hacks, after all, are the result of social engineering. People pretending to be someone else, hoping to gain your trust, to ask a favor.
My chat reminded me that @josh is not only what I post. It’s what I do on the app too. Instagram remembers what I watch and what I like. The company collects data to algorithmically curate a never-ending stream of content based on my interests. If I continue to watch funny animal videos, Instagram will show me more of the same. Even if I accidentally tap on one of the tattoo artist’s posts, I start to see more tattoos in my suggested posts. By tracking my activity, Instagram not only reflects a version of me—perhaps a me even more genuine than the one I consciously curate in the photos I post—but assists in its creation. If I like a dog video, it might suggest a llama video, expanding my sense of who I am: I’m not just a dog person, I’m an animal guy. If @josh is an extension of my mind, Instagram has some control over it, at least as long as I use the app.
In my profile bio, I recently listed my full name. I hope this will clarify things for people who come across my account expecting another Josh. In one recent DM, a group of German teenagers traded gossip. It was fun to read German again and encouraging to realize that I had retained some knowledge of the language from my youth. I found myself wanting to read more, to know who was in love with whom, to hear what had happened in class today, but then at some point, abruptly, one of them paused and asked why @josh was on the thread. I don’t know, one said, after checking my profile. Who is Josh Riedel anyway?
Update, Jan. 27, 2023, 2:45 p.m.: After this article was published, the author changed his Instagram handle to @thejoshriedel.