LOS ANGELES — For the first few years of his N.B.A. career, LeBron James tried to avoid social media. He valued his privacy. He did not see the point of sharing his personal life with millions of online followers. Even when friends began urging him to post more on various platforms so they could follow his journey from afar, he was hesitant.
“I just felt like it was so invasive,” he recalled.
But by 2012, James decided to heed their advice and became active on Instagram. Now, he cannot stop himself.
He shares photos of his children. Of his teammates. Of his stats. Of his luggage. He uploads videos of himself rapping along to music, working on his core and sipping tequila. He promotes the television shows that he helps produce and the sneakers that he wears. And he uses emojis — so many emojis.
“He puts everything on there, man,” said Jared Dudley, his Lakers teammate.
The Instagram life of LeBron James is a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of nonstop activity and, as such, the clearest window into his personality, far more so than Twitter (which he joined in March 2009). According to an analysis by The New York Times, James shared 478 photos and video clips with his almost 54 million followers during November. Of those, 454 were temporary stories and 24 were permanent posts.
“That’s all me, right from my phone,” James said in an interview. “Nobody has my password. Nobody is making posts for me or talking for me. I speak for myself.”
And he often does that by using emojis — in his feed and stories, a total of 1,172 of them over the month, including 967 that he posted himself. The other 205 were originally included on others’ posts that James then shared on his own account. His go-tos were fire (297), red heart (137), crown (132), prayer hands (97), hysterical laughter (56) and flexed biceps (54).
All told, James averaged 26.3 points and 78.1 emojis a game for the Lakers, who have the league’s best record ahead of their showdown with the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.
“I know I have a lot of fans who have followed my career,” James said, “and I don’t want to say it’s my obligation, but I think it’s pretty cool to be able to give some insight on what I do.”
Mae Karwowski, the founder and chief executive of Obviously, an influencer marketing company, described James’s Instagram feed as a “master class” in fan engagement. Beyond the volume of posts, which Karwowski said was “quite noticeable,” James managed to incorporate even his branded content within the flow of his daily life.
“It all seems very authentic, which is so hard to pull off,” Karwowski said. “He clearly has a mission and a vision, and there’s so much content. Most celebrities are trying to push something out once or twice a week, and they have a team doing it, and it’s sort of like they just have to check this box.”
Not James, who says he has complete control of his account aside from a few “business obligations.” That means he is in charge of the message — and his image. And that image is a sunshine emoji wrapped in a #RevengeSZN hashtag.
“He loves playing basketball, he loves winning and he loves being one of the bros,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said. “He’s just a happy-go-lucky dude.”
Anyone who monitored James’s account last month would get a window into his thoughts and activities, his fashion sensibilities and his circle of friends. They would know that he started the month by scoring 39 points in a win against the Dallas Mavericks and ended it by eclipsing 33,000 points for his career. That his 5-year-old daughter, Zhuri, made him a “Dada” bracelet, which he removes only for games, and that he refers to Caruso by the nickname “A.C. Fresh.”
They would know that James sometimes lights a candle when he listens to music at home. That he stocked a recent post-practice buffet with at least 10 large pizzas and occasionally indulges in a glass of Bordeaux at lunch. That Nike is naming a building after him on its campus in Oregon and that he launched a housing initiative for low-income students in Ohio.
His followers would also know that he is pals with Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns, that he celebrated Mickey Mouse’s 91st birthday and that “Space Jam 2” is coming soon to a theater near you. That Richard Jefferson is “My guy!” and JaVale McGee is “My G” and Danny Green is “My Dawg!”
That “Taco Tuesday” is still a thing. That he was big on Luka Doncic from the start. That he wore the No. 9 as a high school wide receiver because Peter Warrick was his favorite college player. That he sometimes wears an Audemars Piguet wristwatch.
And that when Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, posted their anniversary trip to Disneyland, James reposted it, adding his own caption — “Beautiful thing bro!”— along with four emojis, including a heart.
James made it clear, too, that he had dunked on Nemanja Bjelica of the Sacramento Kings, a play that might have had a shorter shelf life had James not posted and reposted 14 pics and clips of it from various angles. (It was a really good dunk.) James dunked on a bunch of dudes in November — 36 times on his Instagram account alone.
But he did more than dunk. He blocked shots, delivered no-look passes and celebrated with teammates, maximizing the 24-hour life span of each story with a vast supply of emojis. An image of Caruso scowling merited two hysterical laughter emojis, one prayer hands emoji, one flexed biceps emoji, one shouting emoji and one steaming nostrils emoji.
“From the outside looking in,” Caruso said, “I’m sure it’s really weird for people to see a guy like me, who went undrafted and went through the G League and all that, sharing posts with LeBron. But we’re teammates, and it kind of points to our chemistry. Everyone is together on this team, chopping it up and enjoying the basketball.”
If Instagram is a part of James’s team-building formula, then emojis are his love language. It goes something like this: James will post a story about a teammate that includes emojis, then that teammate will repost James’s original post by adding his own emojis, then James will repost the repost with even more emojis.
A nesting doll of emojis. On his feed. All the time.
“If he ever sees the chance to show someone some love and give them a shout out in some small way, he’s going to do it,” Green said.
But James does not limit his online correspondence to the Lakers. In November, he expressed his support and admiration for boxers (Seniesa Estrada), football players (Colin Kaepernick, DeAndre Hopkins) and musicians (Travis Scott, Dave East, the Stylistics). James loves music. In fact, 30.8 percent of his Instagram activity over the month was of him listening to music, often selfie-style as he bobbed his head in the back seat of his chauffeured automobile. By comparison, basketball-related content made up only 27.4 percent of his stories and posts, and 5.2 percent of those were about his oldest son, LeBron James Jr., who goes by the nickname Bronny and whose high school team kept obliterating its opponents.
Once social media-shy himself, James cautiously welcomed his son to the platform in May and warned “haters” to stay out of Bronny’s comments. Junior now has more than 3.9 million followers of his own.
“He’s a new-age, global superstar of social media,” Dudley said of LeBron. “And he’s got different aspirations — maybe being a billionaire, doing this, doing that. And his social media is key for that.”
To be sure, James is a global corporation unto himself. For example, 9.8 percent of his posts featured Nike footwear. But he also seemed to avoid wading into world affairs after he experienced backlash in October for criticizing the timing of a tweet about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters by Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager.
In the wake of that rare public misstep, James kept his Instagram feed controversy-free. Aside from 24 references to himself as the “Washed King” — a nod to unnamed critics who thought his game was in decline — James cluttered his account with relentless positivity. It helped that the Lakers won 14 of their 15 games in November.
The only evidence that James was ever in a bad mood played out over 53 seconds on Nov. 23, when the Lakers were in Memphis ahead of a game that night against the Grizzlies. In a five-frame story sequence that had a cinematic feel, James divulged that he was grumpy — because he had been prematurely roused from his nap.
The sequence starts in darkness before James opens the curtains of his hotel room to reveal a disc jockey blasting some tunes at a fan fest on the plaza below. It is raining. People are running for cover. James zooms in on the offending disc jockey, who continues to pump out the jams.
“My whole nap, bro,” James says. “My whole nap.”
James soon steps back to draw the curtains. Darkness envelopes him once more.
“My goodness,” he mutters.
Later that night, a more upbeat James was back on the app — with two fresh photos of the purple sneakers he had worn in the Lakers’ win.