I’ve only mentioned this to a few people, but I’ve been doing an Instagram experiment for about a month. It involves my normal account, as well as a new fake account I created.
I didn’t come up with any really amazing insights or discoveries, and I wasn’t sure what to post about it, but I just read a new article from Max Chafkin in Bloomberg Businessweek that breaks down the world of Instagram fakery really well. Chafkin started with about 200 Instagram followers, and set out to make himself an influencer, with the help of an influencer agency called Socialyte, as well as some actual influencers and photographers. The article is really good, I recommend reading it.
My experiment was a lot less involved. At the beginning, I had 112 Instagram followers on my real account (@bn2b), and most photos I posted would get around 10 likes, with no more than a few ever breaking 20. For this account, my experiment was simply to follow as many people as I could, and see how many would follow me back, and possibly interact with me.
It took me about a week to follow the maximum number of people that Instagram apparently allows (7500), but I was doing it fairly casually when I had a few minutes to spare. It was surprisingly easy to follow people, partly because of a feature Instagram provides to suggest new accounts after you follow someone from their profile page. The app arranges dozens of FOLLOW buttons right next to each other, and it’s simple to click them quickly.
I mostly followed people whose accounts seemed interesting, and then all the accounts Instagram said were related to them. I probably looked at about 500-1000 actual profiles while doing this, and I would skip anything that looked terrible. Instagram’s suggestion engine is great though, and I liked most users that it showed me. I was actually disappointed when I hit the 7500 follow limit.
A few weeks after following all these people, the results seem to have stabilized. I gained 1150 new followers, and my total right now is 1271. This means almost 20% of people I followed went ahead and followed me back, which was higher than I expected.
What’s more interesting is that these accounts are still seeing my photos, which now regularly get from 100-200 likes after being up for a day or two. A couple of photos that were at the top of my profile while I was actively spam-following people received 270 and 380 likes:
For the second part of the experiment (I use that term loosely, but mainly to point out that this really wasn’t just some ego boost thing), I set up a new account, and uploaded 3 landscape photos that I hadn’t put on my real account. Then, I signed up for the three day free trial that Instagress (the leading Instagram bot follower service) provides.
I’m about to delete that account, so I won’t link directly, but I will add a screenshot. The new account gained 246 followers, after following 2249 accounts through Instagress, and leaving a bunch of spam comments.
The spam comments are interesting: Instagress, and a couple of articles about Instagram bots, suggest that you write very simple, broad messages, which the bots will post randomly to accounts that meet some sort of criteria you’ve set. I believe I set it to post comments to photos tagged with #nature, #landscape, and similar hashtags.
The irritating thing about this is just that once I had seen this advice posted a few times, I quickly realized that all the short, generic comments on my own photos were almost certainly posted by bots. My real account still receives tons of smileys, emojis and “Nice” comments, and I have strong suspicions that a lot of longer comments are bots too. Someone posted “Great. What camera did you use?” on the purple/green photo above, where I would have thought it’d be more natural to ask about post-processing or what filter I used. I also recently got a few suspect comments, including “Brilliant colors” on a black and white photo:
I don’t know if my experiment really yielded any insight, but I have to say, I’m quite enjoying all the new people that I’m following. Instagram has one of the best algorithmic feed setups going, and the app continually shows me photos I really like, even though I’m sure I’m following some so-so photographers. I honestly wish I could follow more than 7500 people, or at least that I could just stick all the photos from a certain hashtag into my feed, and then have it show me all the best #35mm, #landscape, etc. photos.
Update: There’s a really good story about this on Petapixel right now, check it out. The author did a very good, extensive write-up after 2 years of using Instagram bots. He calls it an “experiment”, but he paid Instagress 10 bucks a month for 2 years and built up a lot of followers, so I think he was a little more serious about it than he lets on, and it’s pretty funny how at the end he turns it into a battle cry of “we gotta fight against the automated bots!”
In all honesty, I don’t really begrudge anyone who does this, but I think 99.9% of people are wasting their time, because there’s no way they’re going to actual get any big benefits out of it. I know a small percentage of people have gotten work/money by becoming huge on Instagram, but for most people, the result of this will just be the ego boost of seeing that you spam-followed and spam-commented your way into getting a lot of followers, who themselves just spam-followed you. But to me, I don’t care – if someone wants to create a huge spam following for themselves and it makes them feel cool then haha, why not. I do with all the damn bots would stop adding dumb, super obvious fake comments to my posts though.