Will Smith once rapped that “parents just don’t understand,” but given that the West Philly native’s new Instagram account has more followers than those of his kids Jaden and Willow, it seems they’re starting to get it.
Or, at least the Fresh Prince is.
Launched in December, Smith’s highly popular Instagram account this week crossed the 10 million follower mark, surpassing Jaden’s 7.8 million and Willow’s 2.7 million on the photo-sharing platform. All it took was a little more than two months and about 75 posts. And, last week for the first time, Smith took the No. 1 spot on the Hollywood Reporter’s Top Actors chart, which ranks celebrities by their social media engagement. In second place? Kevin Hart, who has 57.1 million Instagram followers.
Smith’s decades-long celebrity status can account for some of his success online, but much of his Instagram popularity seems to be based on how open and personal the historically private actor can e with fans. It’s a side of Smith, 49, we haven’t seen before, and now we can’t not see it online. He’s unavoidable.
As he said in an Instagram video celebrating his 10 millionth follower, he has avoided social media “because in the past you needed mystery and separation” from the audience to prosper. However, success on social media, where audiences almost expect inclusion and transparency, requires the opposite.
He wasn’t exactly game from the start, though. Smith started slowly in mid-December, posting a few photos from an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in which DeGeneres taught Smith the ropes of the app. From there, the goofy, rich-dad-style content Smith has come to be known for began to develop.
He began posting selfies and sending happy birthday wishes to famous friends, like Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington. He solved a Rubik’s Cube like his character in The Pursuit of Happyness. He celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary with wife Jada Pinkett Smith and spent time with his oldest son, Trey, who has avoided the limelight, unlike Jaden and Willow. He congratulated youngest son Jaden on 100 million Spotify streams of his album Syre with a viral parody video. He sang “La Bamba,” messed it up, and sang it again for those who called him out. Most touchingly for Philadelphians, perhaps, he got hyped over the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.
But it’s not all fun and games for Smith, who also posts messages of support and inspiration for his followers. In one particularly popular Instagram video, Smith quotes 13th-century poet Rumi, telling viewers to “set your life on fire” and “seek those who fan your flames” before translating the message into West Philadelphian:
“Don’t be hanging with no jank-ass jokers that don’t help you shine,” he said.
Through his Instagram account, a clearer picture of Smith as a person emerges, and it looks a lot like the charismatic, personable guy who stole America’s heart
. In recent years, he’s lost some mojo, with commercial flops like Collateral Beauty and After Earth. The recent success of Suicide Squad can be attributed more to its ensemble and prominent marketing campaign than to Smith’s star power. It seemed the Smith with whom audiences were familiar with had gone by the wayside.
But can you blame fans for following him? He’s one of the most naturally charismatic actors of the last few decades. And all that mystery Smith built up early in his career has led to plenty of intrigue, from rumors that he’d joined Scientology to rumblings that he and Jada have an open marriage. Neither question has been answered on Smith’s Instagram account, but after a few videos, both points seem less important.
He’s thrown so much new information about himself to his audience that he’s opened up many more questions. Who knew he loved 13th-century poetry?
Smith’s new YouTube account features behind-the-scenes looks at events like the Bright media tour and the actor’s recent trip to Australia. But because the videos are heavily edited, the channel is slicker and more soulless, and to date has attracted just 701,000 subscribers — a lot by YouTube standards, which gives users a gold play button as an award for hitting one million subscribers.
The YouTube channel is more along the lines of traditional media, adding filters between Smith and his audience instead of subtracting them. It is hard to imagine an A-list celebrity sitting at a Macbook, using Final Cut Pro to edit a seven-minute vlog. Recording a clip on his phone and uploading it straight to fans, though, seems more likely, and is definitely more personal.
(Smith’s camp could not be reached for comment on how his social media accounts are run.)
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Smith, of course, is not the first major celebrity to delve into the waters of social media. Celebs from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sean “Diddy” Combs to Chrissy Teigen and fellow Philadelphian Hart all have similar, and similarly successful, accounts that provide inside looks at their lives. But few have been as famous as long as Smith has, and he appears to have plenty to say.
In that sense, Smith could be something of a trendsetter. Many celebrities have social media accounts, but as platforms like Instagram and Twitter become larger parts of the cultural landscape, it seems unlikely any star of Smith’s caliber will be able to get too far without some direct access with fans online.
Speaking at a Cannes Lions session in 2016, well before his social media days, Smith seemed to understand that concept. Asked about the 1999 critical flop Wild Wild West, Smith said, “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you had a piece of crap movie, you put a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was s— … But now what happens is, 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, ‘This is s—, go see Vin Diesel.’ ”
Smith understood that social media has changed the way we view movies. Now, he gets that it has changed the way we view celebrities, as well. After all, it’s tough to hide these days.
“That smoke and mirrors in marketing is over,” he said. “In making the shift from product to people, I am trusting that if I have a deeper comprehension of people, the product I create is going to be more successful.”