"I’m not very good at Instagram," insists Mindy Kaling. "I’m terrible at taking photos, I upload them upside down or I don’t know how to crop them correctly." And yet the former writer and costar of The Office, now headlining her own show, The Mindy Project, starting Tuesday, September 25 on Fox (who is also on the cover of the September issue of Fast Company) knows her strengths. "Where I shine is commenting on photos."
The key to that commentary is a bit of wide-eyed irony, as in the caption for this shot of her and actor-comic Aziz Ansari: "Bonding with one of my Indian fans!" Or this one, of her disc drive tucked just beneath her comforter: "Look at my disc drive coyly waiting for me in my bed!" It’s that ability to craft a one-liner equal parts knowing and sweet that has attracted more than 1.8 million Twitter followers, and grounds The Mindy Project, a comedy about a rom-com-obsessed OB/GYN (Kaling) who’s trying to find love. "The level of irony that you would use with your friends is not the same on social media," she says, explaining her tweeting style. "People take things at face value. Earnestness is the assumption."
Kaling wears that quality as a badge at times, like when she tweeted a thank-you to Jimmy Fallon for releasing his head writer to work on her show. "I mean, a thank-you note sent personally is a very classy thing to do," she explains, "but to say it in front of a lot of people [on Twitter], to say how gracious he was I think has an even nicer meaning because I’m acknowledging it publicly." Clearly celebrity-to-celebrity interactions on Twitter hold a certain appeal for fans and for the participants, who seem to use social media as a rather public form of texting.
But even that doesn’t trump Kaling’s favorite online activity: snapping pictures of the place where she spends most of her time—the writers’ room. "One of our writers, Ike Barinholtz, eats a lot, so I’ll take a photo of him and his enormous meal," she says as she delicately devours her own mid-morning spread from the NBC-Universal cafeteria—an Egg McMuffin-style breakfast sandwich with hash browns.
Ask for Kaling’s social media strategy and the 33-year-old will plead beginner’s luck ("I don’t know, maybe two-thirds of my followers are spambots"), but she has a clear sense of what works. "People don’t want to listen to a celebrity only tweeting about charities and promoting their own shows and foundations," she intuits. "I think that’s why comedy writers do well on Twitter—we put out little funny ideas." Before you know it, Kaling has placed a charming twist on her M.O.: "I started doing it in the writer’s room because I was too lazy to get a notebook."
Kaling gave up on Facebook: "Too much of a time suck," she says. And she abandoned her blog, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling: "I don’t want my new bosses to be like, ‘Hey, your script is due and we saw that you wrote four pages about a new perfume you bought.’" But she is hopelessly devoted to Twitter and Instagram. "There’s no commitment," she says. "I can do it while I’m walking to my office."