The viral, meme-inspiring #InsecureHBO hashtag is as much a smash hit as ‘Insecure’ itself
Team Issa vs. Team Lawrence. Molly’s married man. What are y’all mad about today?
Don’t underestimate Issa Rae because of her awkward manner — she knows exactly what she’s doing. Last month, an hour after the second season premiere of HBO’s Insecure, the star, writer, and executive producer of the Golden Globe-nominated show tweeted a picture of herself studying the episode’s abundance of Twitter interactions.
The mushroom cloud of data is a testament to Insecure’s knack for transporting the dialogue of group texts, weekend brunches, dinner parties and boozy game nights to the small screen. These divisive vignettes, many of which involve dating and sex, become hot buttons on platforms such as Twitter, where they’ve always been oft-discussed topics. (This past Sunday’s episode revived trite discussion about the racial dynamics of oral sex and handled it about as smoothly as Rae’s character handled the act itself, but started conversations nonetheless.) This stratagem, combined with Insecure’s expert use of social media, is why viewers tune in, react and come back for more every Sunday.
The #InsecureHBO hashtag trends well into Mondays, with many tweets drenched in the passion stirred only when personal feelings are activated. Many of the tweets address the complicated relationship between Issa (Rae) and ex-boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis). When their fading romance finally met its end at the first season’s close, both were pulled from the ashes as idols in a long-waged battle between black men and women that’s found new life via social media’s ability to initiate simultaneous arguments through a single stone cast into the ether.
Because so many people are unable to see the nuances in why relationships fail, the death of Issa and Lawrence’s union saw the birth of #TeamIssa vs. #TeamLawrence. At its best, their relationship was a tender, if not mundane, snapshot of domesticity. At its worst, a case study in how complacency begets emotional malfeasance. Every charged reaction to the disintegration of their union, and to the rest of Insecure’s threads, has found a home at the branded hashtag. Watching this phenomenon — a deluge of debates, admissions, insight and comedy — play out on Twitter every Sunday night is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Either way, Rae surveys the action with observant eyes.
“I follow the hashtags,” she said on Viceland’s Desus & Mero last month. “We always gather at a writer’s house to watch the episodes live and follow the tweets, and then we discuss … because it’s fun to us, how people dissect the episodes, how they receive them. It’s been really rewarding to watch that.”
— Jay Ellis (@JayREllis) July 24, 2017
According to the social media monitoring tool Brand24, #InsecureHBO has an estimated reach of more than 11 million and growing since season two’s premiere (mostly from Twitter interactions) — evidence of Insecure’s vise grip on popular culture. This tightened significantly during the new season after the show earned one of television’s most coveted time slots: after Game of Thrones (which lured a series-record 12.1 million live tune-in viewers for its seventh-season finale after earning a network-record 10.1 million viewers for its season premiere) and Ballers, HBO’s top-rated comedy. Insecure’s season two premiere drew 1.1 million same-day viewers, twice the audience of season one’s finale, and HBO rewarded the return on its investment with a renewal earlier this month. Insecure owes this success, in part, to well-written characters and situations that viewers from Rae’s world of upwardly mobile black college grads easily identify with — although the show’s reach extends beyond that. As an extension of this, Insecure is brilliant from a viral marketing perspective because it’s loaded with triggers mined from the real world and polished in the writers room.
Never mind the platform; social media is anything that is shareable. Whether it’s static or moving, 30 seconds or 30 minutes long, it must connect with its audience instantaneously to succeed. Insecure understands that television, so often an exaggeration of real life, is an arrangement of shareable moments. Each scene is an opportunity to establish a connection, and Insecure uses its half-hour-plus to leave an impression on a weekly basis. Rae, who gained popularity on the wings of her 2011 web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, comes from the world of YouTube, where results are displayed immediately.
“We were creating in real time,” she told Elle last year, “and with audience feedback, so you could automatically know if something worked or if it didn’t.” Those cause-and-effect roots were training for Insecure, which elicits dramatic real-time responses from viewers who see themselves, or people they recognize, in the characters.
watched that Insecure ending like pic.twitter.com/bhUDw5S3fL
— Michael Smith (@michaelsmith) November 28, 2016
But instead of simply creating a show that’s “relatable” to black people as some monolithic entity, Rae made one for a wide-ranging demographic she knows quite well. “The most important thing,” she told Complex ahead of Insecure’s premiere last fall, “is telling a very specific, authentic story, not trying to answer for all black people.”
Representation is one-dimensional in the absence of quality or accuracy, so it’s imperative that Insecure be written and performed from a place of authenticity for its triggers to work. The sex scenes, like Lawrence and attentive bank teller Tasha’s (Dominique Perry) spine-annihilating encounter at the end of season one, have a voyeuristic realism. The intimate conversations, such as Molly (Yvonne Orji) interrogating Issa about her and Lawrence’s abrupt hookup in the new season’s premiere, have a similar fly-on-the-wall quality. That’s because Insecure is most effective when it’s holding the mirror up to its characters.
None are safe from the truths the show reflects. Not Lawrence, whom Tasha finally called out for being the fake “nice guy” that he is. Not Molly, whose personal struggles were offset by her professional success — until striking the glass ceiling struck a blow to her self-worth. And certainly not Issa, whose lone moments of self-actualization and assertion come when she’s staring herself down in a mirror or otherwise detached from reality. What’s more, Insecure is at its most provocative when holding the mirror up to its characters because it’s simultaneously doing the same to its audience.
Insecure’s characters are so thoroughly crafted, even at their most unlikable, that viewers reflexively use them as proxies for their own lives. In Issa, Lawrence, Molly, Tasha, Kelli (Natasha Rothwell), Tiffany (Amanda Seales), Daniel (Y’lan Noel), Derek (Wade Allain-Marcus) and even Chad (Neil Brown Jr.), people see familiar traits and situations. But #TeamLawrence, at its most toxic, is no more than a cabal of hurt men seeking retribution through a fictional character they believe represents their misunderstood “good guy” struggle. #TeamIssa, at its most blind, is women who apparently believe their frustration with lazy, physically and emotionally unavailable men justifies transgressions.
And be it from #TeamLawrence, #TeamIssa, #TeamTasha, or #TeamMolly, a large share of the noise emanating from social media on Sunday night is people projecting their own situations and issues onto whatever scenario or character they identify with the most. Right or wrong, people defend Insecure characters as vociferously as they do their friends, family, or themselves. In perplexing instances, that passion blurs the line between fiction and reality, leading to overzealous fans posting up in Rae’s Twitter mentions to call her a cheater (or worse) because of her character’s infidelity. Only a show as visceral as Insecure could evoke reactions so strong that they occasionally surprise Rae.
“It was crazy to log in and then, just independent of looking at anything, just see people talking about it and going back and forth about Lawrence and Issa,” Rae said of the season one finale during her appearance on Desus & Mero. “That tripped me out in the best way possible. And then we started the writers room the day after the finale and we were all glued to our phones like, ‘What [are] they saying now? You see this meme?’ ”
At the same time, that’s why blind support for any character on Insecure is questionable: They’re written with such detail, flaws and all, that a willingness to die on a hill for any one of them conveys a willingness to miss the point. Insecure, even in its missteps, illustrates life as a spectrum of personal and professional highs and lows, yet people are content to reduce it to fruitless gender wars. But as detrimental as hive mentality is to critical thinking, it’s great for the show because it’s hard proof of how it has created communities eager to mobilize around it. Rae and the rest of Insecure’s family recognize this and stir the pot accordingly.
A new episode starts now on @HBO.
— INSECUREHBO (@insecurehbo) August 28, 2017
Insecure’s Twitter account actively welcomes discourse during and between episodes. It encouraged followers to share bad dating stories, which, on social, is akin to asking someone to breathe. Rae and Ellis, remaining in character, engaged in friendly banter during the fourth episode in which Lawrence engaged in the interracial threesome that caused the expected chain reaction on Twitter.
In a nod to the very tool responsible for boosting the show’s profile, Brown Jr. referenced the GIF of Martin’s Jerome that Chad texts Lawrence before the latter realized he wasn’t built for the porn-fueled, hypersexualized stereotype the other two-thirds of the threesome fetishized him to be. The allusion resonated with the intended audience: people who interact with their friends in the same fashion.
Although 61 percent of Insecure’s audience is non-black, the volume of its online support is amplified by blacks ages 18 to 34 who over-index on Twitter. According to Nielsen, 48 percent of that demographic uses Twitter, compared with 46 percent of its counterparts. The extra stimulus is helping this new generation of black shows succeed: For example, Donald Glover’s Golden Globe-winning Atlanta has a similarly devoted following that’s equally active on Twitter. Robust online engagement, coupled with strong ratings, better quantifies the success of shows such as Atlanta and Insecure. And beyond that, both succeed because they understand people — i.e., their audiences — and the platforms used to reach them.
Doubling down on social media is a canny move by Insecure. Twitter, in distinctly head-scratching moments, devolves into debates about $200 dates or whether you’re broke if you make $100,000 annually, and exalts passports as status symbols. It’s a torrent of self-doubt and posturing, so it’s only natural for a show that scans the breadth of insecurity to use that to its advantage. Insecure is brilliant because people are insecure. Insecure is successful because people are insecure. And what better display of that than social media?