BLOG? Ha. I don't blog. But I do write...

Now that you've checked out my 'ABOUT' page and know a little more about me, here's a little insider info as to what makes me such a social media "expert". It's a LOT longer than I anticipated, but well worth the read. Note: contains explicit language...sorry.

Instapopular vs. Instafake

While researching an article pitch about Instagrams recent changes I had no idea this would turn into something completely different. What began as writing an editorial about the apps transformations turned into an OCD desire to beat the new algorithm (which I’m deeming impossible for now, btw) and an unexpected exploration into the lengths some go through to appear instapopular.

Key word: appear. Keep that in mind.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Hi, I’m @Alicen and I am Instagram user #100,017 if I remember correctly. I've been around since the beginning month of IG’s launch - when Kevin & Mikey, the Instagram founders before the billion dollar sell out to Facebook, were pretty friendly with their users and when @NatGeo was their only ‘celebrity’ account.

Basically, I was instacool long before the Khardasians got here.

I had built up a large following by 2012. Back then large meant a few thousand followers. Then life got busy, I took an almost three year hiatus from IG and lost a mass number of followers during that period.

When I returned it was around the same time Instagram wiped out old accounts - people that no longer used the app or "ghost followers”, a term we use for non-engaging accounts. I dropped to miniscule numbers and it was strange to see my older posts with 500-600 likes compared to my newer, much better pictures get only 20-50 likes. I became bored with it, not really enjoying how different IG had become from what I remembered, so I gave it up. Again.

However, my anti-IG status was short lived. After a trip to Portland I was offered a job writing, photographing, blogging and running social media for a large hospitality company under a pseudo name. I was the "brand" as we say in the biz. I watched their Instagram following grow and grow and grow. Even blogging and their Facebook fell to the wayside as it became ALL ABOUT INSTAGRAM - which is where most of their consumers were showing interest. And lots of it. 

That gave me the idea of marketing the same thing in San Diego so in May 2015 I dove into the SD food/cocktail scene to learn everything I could. My ‘loyal’ following of a few thousand I’d had from the beginning days of IG quickly unfollowed as my sunset and pier iPhone photos were replaced with food & drink posts. Food pictures! WTF, right? Before I became a food-snob myself I often deleted anyone who posted too many food pix, so I totally got it. I used to think "how boring is your life that all you have to post is what you had for dinner?"

I was fine with those that unfollowed because for every 10 followers lost I gained 50 new ones, it seemed, so it didn’t matter. Since my return in 2015 I've grown my following from less than 5k to 17k followers in about a year. Sounds good, right? It’s not. But still, my numbers were growing rapidly and I felt like everything was going my way.

Until it wasn’t.

Instagram launched their new algorithm, which affected my account long before majority of users. It was as if Instagram just stabbed me, personally, with the instaknife to the instaheart as suddenly my posts went from 400-700 likes on average in a 12-hour period to barely getting over 200 likes in 24 hours. So how is this possible with 17,000 freakin' followers? The combination of older accounts, ghost followers, users that follow thousands, a huge following of restaurants & bars that never like anything unless it’s their restaurant and especially Instagrams sucky new algorithm, my posts are, well, temporarily way down on the IG food chain. With this new theorem my engagement rate has dropped so far that after one hour of posting it will be seen only after majority of my followers scroll through almost 100 other posts. Who does that? No one!

Reality check time. I had just quit my "real" decent paying job to build my social media management business. So what the heck was I going to do now? How am I supposed to make this work for my clients who are paying me to work my instamagic?

A bit obsessed (understatement!), I started researching everything I could about this God Forsaken new algorithm. I joined social communities, read blogs & articles and studied every ‘New IG Algorithm: Try This & That To Make It Work For You’ newsletter in my spam folder. One-by-one I went through each piece of BS and tried what they suggested - at the expense of my own IG account. 

And I mean expense.

If you follow me, you may have noticed the downgraded quality of my posts and that I posted then deleted a lot of things for sake of endless hours of analysis – there’s been hashtag research, paying different automated companies to auto-like hashtags and, worst of all, I even had to purchase a few hundred followers. They’ve since been removed, thankfully, but know that a few hundred is TINY in comparison to what I’ve learned about so many accounts. I’m going to tell you now some other pretty cruddy things I tried for this research. Had I have known the outcome, I would have tried this all on a separate account, not my personal one, but as I said earlier I had no clue that this pitch would turn into a full-blown investigation. When you read all this I hope you’ll be enlightened, if nothing else, as I too was clueless before this project became a probe into the fabricated world of InstaFakes.

I’ve outlined some of the shady things they’re doing below, however, there’s a lot more I could touch on. Nonetheless, I think when you get to the ZINGER you’ll agree I really don’t need to say much more.

Let’s start with the Follow/Unfollow tactic. Most seem to use a pay-up-front automated service or “bot” to auto-follow people using certain hashtags then likely unfollow in the next few days regardless if you follow back or not. Some people do this manually as well, without the use of a paid service, but either way, in my opinion these are the people that seem most desperate to boost their following count. Determined to fact check this was really a thing, I tried using the paid-for automated service FOR LIKE A MINUTE. It was awful! I felt dirty, like I needed to shower immediately. I got called out on it instantly and I felt so guilty for it that I went through my own account and unfollowed everyone on my list who obviously does this. Since then I have a rule - if you follow more than 1,200 people I don’t follow back no matter how awesome your feed is. Unless you're really engaging with those 3,000+ people you're following then you're trying too hard, in my opinion. *My apologies if you actually have 3,000+ friends IRL and I’ve mistaken you for a desperate instagrammer.

The absolute worst wannabe Instafamous ones are the ones that buy followers. Some people buy them in bulk…literally thousands of followers at once. There are also the ones that think they're slick and buy 20-100 per day or week. It’s so obvious with their like counts that it doesn’t match up, right? So they buy the likes too and voila! this keeps things APPEARING legit.

Speaking of buying likes, there are many apps that do this, where the wannabes buy likes in bulk. 5 at a time, 10 at a time, any number you desire. Some people are buying them by the hundreds and thousands! That seemed too easy, so I tried it out using one of those companies spamming my email address posted on my IG profile. It cost $19.99 for 50 likes “from real accounts” on every pic up to 10 posts. Immediately after posting my first pic with this “$19.99-really-means-$22.50-company” I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Approximately 30 seconds after posting I got the likes ALL AT ONCE from those ‘real accounts’ that looked as fake as can be. It was soooo obvious that I was buying likes and that the accounts were NOT legit that I quickly emailed them to stop. Even with multiple requests, it took almost 2 months to get rid of these phony likers. It was soooo embarrassing - research or not.

Perhaps you already know about comment buying. Not me. I was completely oblivious to this one, but yes, people actually buy comments for their own account that say things like “great post!”, “love your feed!”, “I like it!” and so on. A lot of times these are mixed in amongst an array of cash-bought thumbs up and smiley face emoticons. Most likely they’ve bought followers, bought likes and now need some way of making it all look real so of course, now they have to buy the comments. Sometimes it’s the result of an automated company they’re using either to buy followers or likes, doing them this extra “favor” and the comments are from those also using the automated service. I didn’t try this one out personally - it’s so noticeable and I didn’t want to downgrade my instastatus any further than I already have for the sake of this here article.

Another dirty trick is to buy a proxy account through automated software which funnels thousands of likes and followers. BIG numbers. They seem to be real ones and you can’t easily tell by looking at it as they may even be following you, hitting that like button and possibly even leaving legit looking comments. Guess what? None of it’s real. Sometimes you can spot these when you see different people tagged in the photos daily…just random people that have large followings. In the foodie scene I’ve found that they tag other individual foodies with large accounts - it seems they’re just all in the proxy biz together, all being one big happy #fakeproxyfamily!

The laziest yet just as tacky way they try and gain followers is by having an automated service go on a somewhat popular profile and “hijack” their most engaged followers - the people that like and comment the most - then follow those users in hopes of a follow back. This is done on my profile all the time and when I catch it happening I block the user from my account. I have literally blocked hundreds.

And now the zinger I promised earlier. I feel like there should be a drumroll for this piece of info [insert the jazz hands emoji here]. Although I haven’t shared, nor fully mastered, ALL the ways people are buying their fraudulent popularity, I do have a bit of help. I was recently provided ‘software’ that shows how many followers/likes/comments were bought or are automated in any sense of the word on ANY Instagram account. I’m not going to give away all its secrets but I will say it can span back the entire length of the account, even if it’s 6 years old (like mine) and can pinpoint real users versus fakes, breaks down automated purchases using a graph of numbers or spikes and can ping when automated followers, likes or comments are added. I have to admit it was becoming quite addicting to hear it ping that I had to turn that portion off for a while. No joke, I spent about a week just waiting to hear it and would go running to see who it hit on. Many times it was the same offenders over and over.

I recently learned some big name companies are building this software into their networks more often now so they know who the legitimate influencers are; to assure their paid-for-posts are genuinely above board. Large PR firms are using it to spot the fake high numbered accounts and reaching out more to smaller influencers. For me, personally, it’s a good business tool. I use the graph to show my possible clients that of other media marketing companies clientele as too many times I’ve found they purchase their clients likes/followers and ‘number rig’ their accounts to make it look like they have a large following. Sad thing is the business owner likely believes that their product is truly being seen when it isn’t and is paying a social media manager to do absolutely nothing for them.

I still use the software almost daily, however, it has become somewhat of a downer - I’m often left deflated knowing that people whose IG feeds I generally liked have been doing some, if not all of the things I’ve mentioned to gain followers. Especially in San Diego I’ve been able to figure out most of the legit following counts, the wannabes with lots of fakes and even those using proxy accounts.

It bothers me that I’ve found a lot of these IGers I personally know. I get it though, somewhat. It isn’t easy to be popular on Instagram, yet witnessing people buying likes and such to appear bigger than they are, really got to me. It was like watching an addict…where the instamadness took over and buying 20,000 fake followers gave them a high. 500 likes were no longer enough, so 1,000 likes became their fix. And for what? To be invited to some media parties (glorified terminology for being an influencer) or to be paid to pimp products? For some, yes, it has been financially worth it…but for the most part people have simply sold the fuck out by trying to APPEAR instaworthy when they aren’t even close to being legit.

When I said I did all this probing at the expense of my own IG account, I sure wasn’t kidding. Since I started this project, it has cost an awful lot of money to try all these automated services and I’ve probably lost close to 3k followers. I’ve violated so many of Instagrams Terms Of Service that I’m pretty sure I've been removed from their recommended users list, was temporarily banned from using hashtags and I’ve been blocked by Instagram from liking more times than I can count with the risk of my account being shut down completely. While doing this research, I’ve watched my like counts plummet and I’ve even witnessed Instagram changing the time on my posts from 1 hour to 2 hours long before it’s been 2 hours. Why? I don’t know, but at that point my posts have fallen into an oblivion. You see, the masters behind the Instagram API know the things I’ve tried to beat their system and they’ve made damn sure I don’t win.  

The worst part? It hasn’t just been the effect on my personal IG account, but truth is I’ve lost some self-respect. Even though I tried all these scummy things mostly for research, it became addicting to see what worked and what didn’t. I caught myself having actual hopes of finding something that gave me an advantage, some way of trying to crack the algorithm code so that I could get more likes, more followers and still make this all work for my clients and as a business.

Does that make me just as fake?  Maybe.

So what have I learned? I’ve learned that my work speaks for itself and I don’t need a large IG count to prove it. I’m at peace with letting my numbers dwindle while this sorts itself out...from what I hear, Instagram may be going back to the old consecutive feed after all. Regardless, I’ve started to go through my followers and block & unfollow anyone that buys fakes and wannabes as I’d rather have a good following of authentics than a large amount that follow thousands or are playing instagames and screwing up my engagement numbers…which in the end, THAT is what the new algorithm is all about.

PS* I hadn’t decided if I wanted this portion in the actual article as I can’t back up these things but I’ve broke down a few ways to tell if follow numbers aren’t legit just by looking at the account. This may not always be the case, but these are the little things I’ve noticed time and time again. Usually you’ll see the same average number of likes on every single post with very few comments or a lot of automated comments. Truth is – a legit following will always have lots of comments. Always! If the photos and captions are mediocre, at best, yet their following count is very high that’s somewhat of a dead giveaway in my opinion. If they have a large following, but videos show only a small amount of views it may be a sign of an obvious phony, however, even video views can be bought, so don’t count on that being legit if the views are at high numbers. If they’re following thousands that’s a red flag in most cases. Instagram allows you to follow 7,502 people, so if you see accounts with numbers anywhere within 3,000 of that then be your own judge. These may not be the facts in all cases, but as I used the software and studied the users accounts it was the same vibe over and over.



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