That time when I got back my Instagram account by sending Facebook a letter

September 2022

This is an old story about love, hacking, and bad UX.

It was 2016. Back then, Instagram was an invaluable tool for dating. I never used Tinder much, because Instagram was the bomb.

One day, while doing some experiments, I accidentally locked myself out of my account. For real. A tragedy.

At the time, I had two accounts: one was my main, the other was a throwaway profile I used to test… things (auto-liking bots to increase my followers count, mainly: I wrote more about that here). One day, Instagram’s alert systems flagged me, and I was thrown out from both accounts. They thought I was spamming, and in all honesty I kinda was — spamming yours truly in the dating market, that is. They asked me to verify my identity; fair enough. It was an easy are-you-a-human challenge, where I just had to write a confirmation code they sent me over email in a text box.

I opened the email, and I found two things. First, the code. Then, a very long link. Oh, easy — I thought. Instead of making me write the code on my own, they made it handy to confirm it with a link. Usual UX pattern, seen thousands of times. I tapped the link.

A page opened.

“Done! Your email has been dissociated from this account!”

Oh. Well… Shit.

That link was not an easy way to just confirm the number. It was an easy way to remove my email from my account altogether.

Now, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would want to even support such an option in the first place. Especially in a message that is all about confirming my email. It’s like going to a person with a problem, and offering them both a solution, and a way to make their problem utterly irreparable. And to top it off, to make the two options perversely similar so you can get confused.

Yes, I should’ve read the damn email. Well, I didn’t. I fell into the perverse trap instead.

So there I was, in an absolutely insane situation: Instagram was asking me to confirm my identity by sending me an email, just after having decided it was a great idea to forget said email. Catch-22. Dead end. No more Instagram. No more dating.

Ok. Breathe. Keep it cool. No problem. We got this.

Let’s get in touch with Instagram customer support. They’ll understand, and I can have both my Instagram account and my dating life back. Oh, nice, instagram.com/support is a thing. Oh, look at this cute contact form. Let’s write them a message. They’ll fix this in no time.

You might be seeing where this is going. I wrote them probably 20 times. Maybe more. I tried it all.

Never heard back from them.

Truth is, Facebook doesn’t even have the notion of a support system. They’re just too big. I get it. I was founding my own sorta-kinda-social startup around that time, and even I had issues keeping it up with all those support tickets. Can’t really blame Facebook for that. Whatever the reasons, my dating life was just too important to let the matter drop like that.

I had to take action.

After a couple of weeks of futile attempts, I figured that the whole thing was all about skipping the line. If they weren’t replying to me, it must have been because there were too many people contacting them and complaining, exactly as I was. I had to find a way to rise above the fold.

So I decided to send them a letter in the mail. The only other time I ever sent a letter was when I was 8, I had a pen pal, and the Internet wasn’t really a thing. Ancient memories, ancient technology. But I had nothing to lose.

They thought I was a spammer, so I had to prove to them that I wasn't. I proceeded to write a one-page letter where I detailed my problem, and made sure to include a lot of personal information. And I mean… a lot. Mobile phone, email, home address, passport number. Heck, I even included a picture. I KYC’ed myself in that letter.

I also politely included precise references to the law that backed up my claim. See, even before GDPR was a thing, some privacy laws protected customers from these sorts of bad situations, and it was my legal right to make sure that I could at least get rid of my pictures. If I couldn’t have my account back, I demanded to have it removed for good.

I had the letter. Good. I generated a PDF. Found a scrappy website that was willing to print a PDF and send it on your behalf for two bucks. Paid. Sent. And then I prayed.

Days passed. No answer. I thought the battle was lost. My dating life was over.

And then, precisely one week later, out of nowhere, I got this email:

No additional message, no note. Just an email asserting that I took an action that I never took: updating my email address. I couldn’t believe it. It was so surprising, so much coming so out of nowhere, without context or explanation, that it felt like a miracle.

I hit that button. “Hey! You successfully confirmed your email”. I put my credentials in. Mouse over to the login button. Click.

And boom.

I was in.

--

A few months later, thanks to the now-recovered Instagram account and a reborn dating life, I found a person that I really, really liked, and wanted to spend a lot of time with. Six years later, we’re getting married.

So thank you, random John Doe living in San Francisco, who opened my letter that morning, decided to do a nice thing for a stranger from the opposite side of the world, and restored my lost Instagram account.

All this was utterly ridiculous, and resorting to physical mail and veiled legal threats shouldn’t be how customers respond to (criminally) bad email design. But all good.

I owe you one.

---

Want more?

I post irregular, bite-sized updates on Twitter. If you liked this post, feel free to tag along or reach out.
You can also find more essays here.

PPS

I’m publishing a private newsletter on what I’m thinking and what I’m building. Join 1,200+ readers here:

© Gianluca Segato 2022