I remember how excited I was when I first started posting on Instagram. I finally had a platform to get my work seen, tell my stories, share my life and get inspired by those of others. It was all about creativity and art and the work. It was fair and ethical and just awesome!
Things has changed a lot since, and now I often find myself feeling sick to my stomach when I have to post a new picture!
Over the last few years Instagram became THE new way to advertise, and money got in the way, creating a toxic number game. Now getting our work seen without playing this game is becoming harder and harder. What once used to be about content and originality is now reduced to some meaningless algorithm dynamics, and whoever has the time and the cash to trick this system wins the game.
I’m sure many of you have no idea what goes on behind the scenes and I’m sure even fewer of you know that some of us are using Instagram as a business tool to help us make a living.
I’m writing this with a heavy heart, as I know I’m a huge hypocrite. I’ve been playing the game for the last 6 moths, and it made me miserable. I tried to play it as ethically as possible, but when you are pushed into a corner and gasping for air, sometimes you have to set ethical aside if you want to survive. But surviving doesn’t mean living, and the artist in me is desperate to feel alive again.
I still care about doing things right. So I think it’s time to stop the bulls**t, come clean, and tell you exactly what’s happening. I owe you that, because if I get to live the life I live today, if I get to do what I love the most — traveling, writing and making art — it’s also thanks to my followers!
So here’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: a no bulls**t guide to what’s really going on!
Why Numbers Matter: Influencers and Advertising
For some of us, there’s serious business behind Instagram. Instagram became an advertising platform over the last few years, and there are more people spending time on the app than in front of a TV screen today. The advertising world is shifting and we (the influencers) are now basically walking billboards for brands and companies because through us they can reach consumers (our followers) in a much more genuine and effective way.
I can afford to be on the road only because I’m constantly collaborating with hotels, tour companies, and brands. And these collaborations wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t spend time building a solid portfolio and an engaged following on Instagram.
But good content and a genuine community aren’t enough for most brands. They want the numbers! The bigger the brand, the higher your numbers have to be.
Usually it works like this:
High followers count + high engagement = Good sponsorships, partnerships, gigs, sometimes even money (big money if you have over a few hundred thousand followers).
Unfortunately, most of these brands and companies seem to be clueless about the fact that some of these numbers they look at are incredibly inflated by the tricks and shenanigans we pull to play the system.
A ton of so-called influencers today have those high numbers because they cheated their way up, but they have no actual influence over their audience because their numbers are empty — they are the result of a scummy strategy designed to win the number game. (I’m guilty of a few petty crimes too, and I’ll tell you exactly which ones.)
This game, though, is not just straight down unfair, but it’s actually f**king a lot of people over on both sides — the influencers (especially the honest ones that are working hard and that built something good and useful and that actual have influence over their audience) and the advertisers. It has to stop!
How It All Started
About a year ago, everything changed in the Instagram sphere! In the old days, Instagram used to work chronologically. It was a fair game — whoever posted first appeared in people’s feeds in chronological order whether you had 2 followers or 200K. If you posted at 3pm and a guy with 1M followers posted at 4pm, your pic would be seen first.
But then, to follow Facebook’s example, Instagram decided to stop that and show posts in a an order “based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.” (…B.S.!)
That’s when the new algorithm system came into play and everyone started freaking out. People weren’t seeing our posts anymore, numbers were dropping fast, and some of us, panicking, started coming up with “creative” solutions to trick this evil algorithm and have our work continued to be seen by our followers.
That’s when the number game started getting really dirty!
How the Game is Played: Tricks to Get Followers and Engagement
So here it is, no more secrets, no more bullshit, this is how it really works, this is how many of us are tricking the system!
We Buy Followers, Likes, and Comments (I’m Not Guilty)
The dirtiest way to do this is of course to buy your way to the top. Today there are a million website where you can buy just about anything to make yourself look Insta-famous! Who cares if those are empty follower accounts that don’t bring any value to the table, right?! I was never able to go this far, luckily, but I witnessed so many people shamelessly do this from the very beginning across all industries!
We Follow/Unfollow, Like, and Comment on Random People (Partially Guilty)
One of the most effective strategies to gain followers is to catch people’s attention by liking and commenting on their pictures so they’ll come to your profile and possibly start following you (I’ve done that before). Another much more unethical way is to follow people so they’ll follow you back and then you’ll just unfollow them like a total douchebag (I never ever done this — not for that purpose. The only time I unfollow someone is if I stop liking their content).
We Use Instagress and Co. (I’m Guilty)
The above strategy can be very, very time-consuming and most people don’t have the time to invest in it. But that’s not a problem because there are websites that will do that for you! They’ll like and comment and follow people on your behalf. Over the last year websites like Instagress and Archie started popping up like mushrooms and a lot of us, desperate to get their engagement back on track, started using them. I did. I used Instagress on and off for the last six months and I always felt incredibly conflicted every time I’d turn it on. I stopped using it several weeks ago and ironically Instagram shut it down soon after.
We Go to Instagram Spots (I’m Guilty)
We are all going to the same places, trying to get similar versions of that same shot because we know it will get us more likes… We go to Instagram-spots! What a sad, sad word that is, isn’t it?!
A friend of mine told me “Trends never end on Instagram,” and it’s so, so true. I know tons of accounts that all post the same things, the same places, with the same style. When I scroll down my homepage the sight of yet another moody picture of Iceland or Lake Braies (I’m guilty!) makes me want to puke now.
The saddest part, though, is that when I go to places that haven’t been shot before, trying to do something new and different, the picture tanks almost every time — it breaks my heart!
Some of the big guys on Instagram today have hundreds of thousands of followers because when they were there at the very beginning, they were doing something new, something creative, something ORIGINAL. Today though, forget about that s**t! No one cares about being original anymore! Originality doesn’t beat the algorithm, but what has been seen a million times before apparently does!
We Get Featured by Collective Accounts
A more than ethical way to get more followers is to be feature by collective accounts (themed accounts that reposts pictures of other people). To get feature you have to use their hashtags, tag them in your picture (and following them is suggested). There are tons of these accounts and many have big followings so if they repost one of your pictures their followers will see it and if they like it they might come check out your profile and possibly follow you. Clean, easy, and ethical for a change!
Unfortunately, though, even if there are many good and ethical collective accounts that give people the opportunity to get their work seen by hundreds of thousands and built a community with their audience, today some of these account took a turn to the dark side! I emailed my portfolio to some of these featured accounts a few months back and I received an alarming amount of replies where they were asking me for money to get featured! (And we are not talking small money!)
It’s incredibly f**ked up that these people, who build their businesses on free content they took from us, are now asking artists to pay to get featured! Imagine if MTV started asking for money from music artists to air their music videos — WTF! These accounts today are successful only thanks to our free content, so please, don’t you dare, ever pay for a feature! They are the ones that should be paying and thanking you!
Note: Many of the people involved in the “Instagram mafia” I’ll talk about below are also directly involved with the owners of collective accounts and getting priority over the regular joe who tags and uses the account hashtags to get feature. There’s an ungodly amount of ass kissing going on with feature accounts, so don’t feel bad if your work never gets featured, it just means you aren’t kissing the right ass!
We Are Part of Comment Pods (I’m Guilty)
When Instagram switched to the algorithm and our engagement started dropping because our followers weren’t seeing our posts, some of us Instagrammers came up with this idea: “We are all in the same boat, we are losing our people, our numbers are lower which means we’ll lose collaborations opportunities and gigs, so let’s support each other, let’s comment at each other pics so we still look legit!”
That’s how comment pods started. Usually this is how it works: A pod includes about 10 to 15 people, we create a group message in our DM and every time someone posts a new pic, they also send it privately to the group so that everyone comments and likes that picture. That way our engagement looks higher.
I’m currently in two different pods. With time some of the people in these pods became friends and we met each other around the world in real life.
A few months after pods started existing, Instagram noticed something was up and rumors went around that they were trying to stop pods… So what happened next? People took it to a whole new level, creating a little “Instagram mafia”!
The Best Kept Secret: The Instagram Mafia and Explorer Page (I’m Not Guilty)
Now we enter the most well-kept, dirty little secret of us Instagrammers!
Eventually someone figured out the secret formula to trick the algorithm: if you manage to get high engagement (lots of comments and lots of likes) within the first 30 to 45 minutes after you upload a picture on Instagram (especially from bigger accounts), then most likely that picture will end up in the Explorer page and it will be seen by tens of thousands of people… and it will get THOUSANDS of likes.
Large groups of small and big influencers (or whatever you want to call us), feeling threatened by the rumors of Instagram cracking down on pods, got organized: they brought their pods out of Instagram and transferred them to Whatsapp and Facebook group chats. This is how it works: If you want to be involved you have to post at the same time as everyone else (the most used time slot is around 2PM NYC/EST time).
Every day you are posting, you put your name in one of the lists created in this chats. You keep your list of all the other people posting in hand, go on Instagram, and once 2PM hits, you start commenting like a maniac! This way, most of the time your pictures will end up in the Explorer page and it will get thousands of likes.
But here’s the catch: most of these likes are one time likes, and most of the people who liked that picture aren’t your followers and never will be. But that doesn’t matter, because now you look like the cool guy with the highest engagement ever (even if you didn’t earn it), and you can trick brands into hiring you because you have the numbers! Easy right?!
How the f**k did we get to this point? I’m serious! When I found out about this B.S., something broke in me. I can’t believe this is what it has come to. The amount of time people are investing in playing these tricks is scary — this time could be used to work on our art, on our happiness, or on just living real life!
People are blinded by the mirage of Insta-fame. They want it now and they want the benefits that come from it but they don’t want to put in the work, the real work that takes time and sweat and tears to do. Anything good and durable takes time and hard work to build, and trickery is not a durable nor ethical strategy.
What this has become is f**king everyone over in the long run!
There’s still a lot of good on Instagram: there are honest Instagrammers that are doing amazing things and earned their way up. There are good people with a lot of talent, good work that deserves to be seen, and voices that deserves to be heard. I met some of my good friends today thanks to Instagram. I have work opportunities that I could only dream about before. I have an engaged community of artists, creatives, travelers and amazing people of all kinds that I can share my life and my work with, and for that I’m incredibly thankful.
I found myself caught up into a vicious cycle, playing the game to keep afloat and keep doing what I like to do, but I am sick and tired of playing games. This is not why I started posting on Instagram — this is not what I want my life to be about. I started using the app to share my art, my ideas and my thoughts on life and travel with the world, to possibly have a conversation, to transmit some sort of emotion and make you dream harder. I didn’t start this to pump up my ego with empty numbers.
We live in an era where way too often the number of likes we get on a post is the correspondent numeric value we give to ourselves. I learned early on to not let my self-esteem be affected by numbers. If you are posting good content but your numbers are low, please, please, please, don’t question your worth nor your work! It’s not your fault! It’s not about your content, it’s not about your work. Instagram today is not about the work at all. Not anymore.
It’s about strategy. That’s what it came down to.
So who’s to blame? Instagram and the evil algorithm? Or those of us who are playing dirty?
Maybe that doesn’t even matter. Maybe instead of blaming it on someone we should start finding ethical solutions to stop this monster we created and make it a fair game again so that everyone can have equal opportunities.
I’m quitting all the bulls**t. I’m done playing games. I want to do this the right way. Now you have all the info I have, and you can make whatever you want with it. You can use this to play the game and join the mafia or maybe, just maybe, you can keep playing clean and know in your heart that the system is flawed and corrupted, and you can do your best to make Instagram all about stories and creativity and the art and the work again…
About the author: Sara Melotti is a photographer originally from Italy and the creator of the Quest for Beauty project. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Melotti’s work and writing on her website and Instagram. This article was also published here.
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