So, I ranted about this topic on Instagram Stories last week, but, oh look – apparently I’m going to rant about it over here, too, because here’s the thing: I’m getting really, really sick of Instagram, and the crazy levels of fakery people are willing to descend to over there, in a bid to get themselves a few more followers.
And, I mean, look, I get it: we’d all like more followers, we’d all like more engagement, and, for those influencers who’ve made Instagram an integral part of their online businesses, we’d all like to do everything we can to make a success of it. Like I said, I get it: I’ve been working on building my Instagram following too this year, and I don’t blame anyone for doing their best to raise their profile. Lately, though, I’ve been starting to question whether it’s even worth bothering any more, when so many people are prepared to just buy or manipulate their way to Instagram success – which leaves the rest of us feeling like we’re failing miserably in comparison.
What inspired this particular rant? Well, last week I posted this image to my Instagram account, and then went about my business as usual. When I checked back just a few minutes later, though, I was surprised to find the image already had quite a few comments – and even more surprised to find that all but one of them said exactly the same thing:
(The “super-snuggly”comment may or may not be genuine, but I’ve hidden the person’s name, just in case. One of the issues with this kind of thing is that it makes you doubt the authenticity of absolutely everyone…)
Well, not exactly the same thing: every one of the commenters had written the words, “Loving winter,” but while one person was loving winter with a palm tree emoji, another was loving it with a heart-eyed emoji, and so on and so forth. All of this was pretty confusing to me: neither the photo, captions or hashtags had referenced winter at all, and although it was a photo of me in a thick sweater – which I guess people might associate with winter – there didn’t really seem to be a reason everyone would, almost simultaneously, make exactly the same observation about it, and all within a few minutes of each other.
At first I thought it was either some kind of wind-up, or just a joke that was going right over my head. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened to me, but when I posted about it on Twitter, no one there seemed to get the joke either – which made me think there was something else going on here. And here’s what I think it is…
Almost every article you read about Instagram will advise you to like and comment on other people’s posts, in order to draw their attention to your account, and hopefully persuade you to follow them. Doing that on enough images for it to make a significant difference to your follower numbers, however, would be pretty time consuming… which is why a number of websites have sprung up which offer to do it all for you – for a price, of course.
Most of these sites use some kind of script to automate the process of commenting/liking Instagram posts for you: so you simply give them your account details, and they’ll post comments and/or likes on anything from dozens to hundreds of photos a day. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but my best guess is that the automated script looks for a certain word in a caption or hashtag, and then either likes the photo or posts a comment it deems to be “appropriate” for that word. Which sounds fine in theory, but which will backfire pretty badly if:
a) The photo the comment is posted on relates to something very serious, or not totally connected to the ‘trigger’ word. I mean, I’m assuming the word “knitwear” in my caption was the trigger here (it’s the only explanation I can think of), but can you imagine how I’d have felt if I’d said something like, “I’m wearing this cosy knitwear for comfort, because I’m really sad today,” and everyone was just all, “Loving winter!” in response?
b) The script posts the same comment, to the same photo, multiple times in a row, from different users, thus instantly “outing” those people as having paid someone to leave comments for them. (On that point, by the way, I did respond to some of the accounts asking them if there was some genuine meaning to their comment that I was just missing, but none of them replied to me. I’ve now deleted their comments as a courtesy to them, but I do hope they had a chance to read my responses before they disappeared…) Awkward.
Now, the thing that made all of this so strange to me was that all of the commenters who were “Loving winter,” on my photo seemed to be genuine Instagram users, rather than spam accounts. None of them were actually following me, as far as I could tell, but still: all real people/brands, who would presumably be horrified to know that some dodgy ‘Instagram engagement’ script had made them look… well, a bit odd, really. Why would someone risk their reputation like that? As far as I can tell, there are only two reasons someone would use this kind of service:
a) Vanity. People like having high follower numbers, and, these days, they are increasingly prepared to do whatever it takes, even if it’s dodgy as all hell, to get them.
b) Money. It’s pretty obvious that the people with the highest number of Instagram followers will win the most brand collaborations, and be able to command the highest fees. Like I said, we ALL want to grow our following, and most of us don’t have the time to spend hours every day liking and commenting on Instagram – so why not automate the process by getting someone to do it for you?
The argument from people who use these scripts is that the followers they gain from it are genuine ones. They’re not paying for followers, exactly: they’re paying for a service that will basically help draw attention to their accounts by leaving comments and liking photos for them, just as they might do themselves if they had the time for it. When you put it like that, it probably sounds pretty innocuous, but the problem (other than the fact that, no matter how you want to try to justify it, it’s still effectively an attempt to ‘cheat the system’) is that these services don’t actually use Instagram in a natural way, or a way that you’d necessarily even approve of: they’re leaving comments and liking photos under your name, on accounts you know nothing about, and they’re posting things that often don’t make sense, or, in the worst case scenario, could end up being incredibly offensive.
An automated script, no matter how good it is, cannot accurately replicate human behaviour: it can’t actually look at a photo/caption, understand the context and the subtleties of it, and leave the same kind of comment a human being would. Instead, it just looks for a certain word then blurts out a generic, two-word statement, which may or may not be accompanied by a random emoji. In the best case scenario, you’ll end up looking like a spammer or an airhead: in the worst-case scenario, you end up “liking” a photo posted by a neo-Nazi account, or commenting, “Love this!” on a photo of someone’s recently deceased pet.
While I understand the logic of people thinking, “I want to grow my Instagram, but I don’t have the time to do it myself,” I find all of this incredibly problematic: honestly, I think it’s ruining Instagram. The sad fact is, you see, this kind of thing doesn’t just begin and end with a few annoying comments on a single photo – if it did, I wouldn’t be bothering to write about it, because we all get spammed from time to time, and it’s really not worth getting worked up about. It’s not even about the so-called ‘fake’ photos that people post. Let’s be honest: no one really thinks all those carefully curated flatlays and filtered selfies are representative of ‘real’ life, and I’d argue that most people don’t really care. I don’t, particularly: the fact is, I like looking at pretty photos, and I can’t bring myself to get worked up over the idea that someone went the extra mile to create them. (Honestly, when I see people complain that “It’s not REAL life!” my main thought is, “Who ARE these people who apparently take photos of their laundry piles and zits, and expect everyone else to do the same?”)
I DO, however, care about the fake followers and the fake comments: and while the “loving winter!” incident was the most obvious one I’ve noticed so far on my own account, I have also noticed an increase in the generic “love this!” or “♥” comments I get – all of them from accounts that don’t follow me, and most of them probably posted by a script, rather than a real person. It depresses the hell out of me. I really hate creating an image I’m proud of, posting it, and then only getting fake comments from robots. It makes me wonder what the point is: who am I even talking to on Instagram now? Who am I reaching? Did ANYONE like that cute photo of my dog, or were all the likes and comments from automated scripts, or even just real people who aren’t actually interested in my account, but who’ve decided to try to use it in attempt to boost their own following?
Ultimately, I think that, even if these automated scripts work flawlessly, and never post anything dodgy or spammy, they’re still a pretty sad reflection on the state of social media and blogging right now, and if you think there’s no harm in it, please consider the fact that you’re essentially just using people for your own gain. As my experience above demonstrates, when I tried to start a dialogue with the people who’d appeared to comment on my photo, there was no response – because these people aren’t remotely interested in what I have to say, they’re only interested in using my account to boost their own. It’s not a nice feeling to be on the receiving end of that, and I actually worried at one point that all of those obviously fake comments would end up making ME look bad, by leading people to suspect that I was the one paying for followers. These comments are not natural, they’re not nice, and they make the accounts posting them look ridiculous – yes, even when it’s just a simple “heart eyes” emoji, or whatever else you think won’t make you look bad. Insincerity does make you look bad, though: which isn’t really a great way to brand your grid, is it?
More and more, I feel like the artificial manipulation of the Instagram algorithm has started to replace genuine engagement over there. Just a few days after all those “loving winter” comments landed on my account, I logged into Facebook, and almost immediately stumbled upon a thread on one of my blogging groups, in which people were debating the various merits of the services I’m talking about here: ones designed to “like” and “comment” on your behalf. I was honestly quite shocked to realise how many of these services there are – and how many people use them, into the bargain. In that group, almost everyone who responded to the thread was using an Instagram bot to comment/like from their account: I’ve known for a while now that these services exist, but I genuinely hadn’t realised how popular they are, and it was quite depressing to see that a lot of people just seem to take it as read that this is what they have to do to “get ahead”. It made me suddenly wonder if this is why my own account doesn’t grow as quickly as other people’s seem to – and to question if it’s even worth my while bothering with Instagram at all now.
But this is how the internet is now – and it’s starting to feel increasingly fake and hollow to me. I look at successful Instagrammers, and wonder if they bought their followers. I get a new comment on one of my photos, and I now have to ask myself if it was left by a REAL person, or a robot. I look at a blog post with tons of comments (but terrible writing and photography) and know beyond doubt that the only reason that person seems “popular” is because they post their link to 50+ Facebook threads per day, and then spend hours leaving insincere comments on the blogs of everyone else in the the thread, in order to get their own insincere comments in return. This is CRAZY, people. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever… and yet I personally know people who will argue all day long that that it’s the ONLY way to get ahead in blogging/social media, and that they HAVE to do it, because there’s no other choice.
The result is that Instagram is fast becoming a platform which bloggers use to present fake lifestyles, to fake followers, in order to get fake likes and comments – is it any wonder that we’re still not being taken seriously?
P.S. Slightly different from what I’m talking about above, but I posted one of the photos from this post on Instagram, with a caption talking about the post, and here’s the first comment it got:
Thanks for proving my point, Spambot!