In the world of Instagram, there is a practice known as botting — and I hate it. For the uninitiated, botting is the process of tying your Instagram account to a wide variety of automation software, which charge users small sums of money to juice their profile. At the heart of it, it’s a pay-to-play relationship where you’re paying money to grow your following on Instagram.
For this experiment, I used a popular bot called Instagress, which I’ll explain in more detail soon. This is how the folks at Instagress pitch their services:
If you’ve ever wondered how certain businesses and celebrities have millions of followers on social media, you may be surprised to find out that they have entire social media teams dedicated to managing their accounts. That’s because amassing a huge number of Instagram followers takes a ton of manual work.
So how do small businesses, up and coming celebrities, and new brands compete? Yes, you could hire a team of interns, or spend every waking hour on Instagram (which many people do), but we knew there had to be an easier way.
For them and many others, the easier way to become Instagram famous — rather than doing “a ton of manual work” — is to use Instagress. It’s a powerful piece of software that is always evolving, but at the heart of it, you tell Instagress what keywords you want it to like or comment on, and it will run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until you stop paying for the service. As the site states, “it’s like creating a small robot clone of yourself with the same interests and style, and then letting it work for you on Instagram.”
Creepy wording aside, that’s a really nice way of saying that this software will send your account on a liking and commenting rampage, even while you’re asleep. In days, Instagress will have already liked thousands of photos and videos on your behalf, and some of these Instagrammers that you’ve given some love to will swing by your account and show you some love, too. It’s as simple as “I’ll scratch your back and then maybe you’ll scratch mine,” except with the help of Instagress, you’re able to scratch a humanly impossible number of backs and, in turn, reap the likes, comments, and follows.
On one side of this debate you have people like me, who think botting is a way to cheat the Instagram platform, and on the other side you have the botters themselves, who shamelessly use automated software to boost their accounts. They think it’s smart. I think it’s dishonest, and below I’m going to lay out my argument for why Instagress and other bot programs like it are the worst thing to ever happen to Instagram.
How I Got Started
Sometime around April 2015, I created the Instagram account called @canon_bw. One of the cliché pieces of advice you get when you start an account is to have a theme, and for the purpose of this experiment I wanted to be as cliché as possible. For @canon_bw, I would only post photos in black-and-white from my Canon gear, making a point in each post to give my exposure settings and gear used. Why? I don’t know, it’s cheesy and I wanted it to be cheesy. Here is a typical post.
For captions I would put the first word or phrase that came to mind and a semi-relevant emoji or two. My goal was to never spend more than a minute on any given post, because I wanted to show how uninvolved it could be. Then, after posting the shot, I would immediately copy and paste 30 hashtags as the first comment on the post, another cliché get-likes-fast tactic. I’ll get into hashtags soon, but for reference here is my hashtag list.
Note: I used the same hashtag list for every single post I did, only changing the last three tags to correspond to the shot’s location:
That’s it. For the first few months I gave simple “thank you!” and 👊🏻🙏🏻🙌🏻responses to people who were commenting nice things, but I soon started to ignore comments and new followers altogether. I didn’t scroll through my newsfeed. I didn’t actively like or comment on anything posted by anyone. I didn’t tailor my hashtag set for each occasion. If I had actually cared about my hashtag selection and included heavyweights like #beautifuldestinations #agameoftones, etc, the gains would be even more apparent. All this in an effort to spend as little time on this as possible.
In the background on any given day, “I” was busily liking and commenting on thousands of photos within the Instagram ecosystem — without even touching my phone.
Over the last few years, I have made close to 365 posts this way, which is pretty lax. Over time, my posts got anywhere from 500-1,500 likes and the account picked up over 11,000 followers. I know this isn’t a raging success by traditional Instagram botting standards, but to me, it’s significant for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s worth reiterating that I did not spend more than a minute at a time on this account when posting. With my average being a post every two days, no more than 5 minutes were spent on this account in any given week.
Ask anyone who is trying to build an Instagram account or consider the time you spend scrolling through your newsfeed — my dedication to @canon_bw was tantamount to neglect. Second, my real account @calder has been a work in progress since 2013, and I spend a decent amount of time there interacting with my friends and exploring new artists. The most likes-per-post I can hope for is around 300 with 5500 followers.
Let’s do a side by side comparison…
Both accounts feature photos by the same photographer, me. @calder is my primary focus, and I’ve spent a great deal of time building it. @canon_bw uses the same photography yet it’s in black & white, which is generally not a value-add for engagement.@calder is over 4 years old; @canon_bw less than 2 years old. If we use @calder as a control in this experiment, the benefits of botting are apparent. But appearances aren’t everything.
A Look Inside the Instagress Bot
For those of you who aren’t sure what software like Instagress does for an Instagram account, here’s a quick overview.
Bots run off hashtags. After you supply the bot with a set of hashtags, it will comb through every photo and video being posted on Instagram.
Media with the specific accompanying hashtags will be targeted, and the bot will begin interacting with the contents’ creators. The most common bot action is liking the photo on your behalf, but it can also leave a random comment from a bank of comments you’ve supplied.
The bot will do this as fast as possible, engaging at a steady clip, but never crossing Instagram’s spam thresholds. The result is that over the course of a month, tens of thousands of people will receive a random act of kindness from you, and a decent percentage of those people will return the favor by visiting your feed, liking some of your work and hopefully, following your account. You can see how many photos my bot liked and commented on in just 30 days.
Ever hashtag your work and receive likes and comments from people or large brands you have absolutely no connection to? Sure, some of this engagement can come from other users organically finding your work when they click on these hashtags themselves, but I think that’s just a fraction of what’s actually happening. The fact of the matter is, bots run off hashtags and there are a lot of accounts running bots.
I don’t want to throw an estimated number out because there’s no definitive data. All I can do is draw from my personal experiences as a professional photographer, and if I’m looking at my photographer friends who contribute actively on Instagram, almost half of them use this kind of software.
A mass of bots around the world targeting popular Instagram hashtags will result in photos tagged with popular hashtags getting more likes. Period. This is why you see photographers around the world adding as many hashtags as possible to their work. Photos with the most engagement will be added to the Top Nine selects, which stay pinned at the top of the hashtag page and receive additional organic eyeballs. This is the basis for a cycle that can catapult your average photographer to Instagram fame.
The Value of These Likers/Followers
But let’s say you’re killing it thanks to a bot. Thousands of people are liking your photos and your follower count is growing every day. What a great feeling to finally get the recognition you deserve for your great work, because hey, you deserve it!
That’s our special sauce—real Instagram followers. There are tons of competitors that allow you to buy followers, but they’re usually fake accounts. With Instagress, you’re connecting with real accounts. Our service helps you to build brand loyalty, make new friends, and maintain a healthy and active Instagram account.
Uhh…this is where things start to look bad for the botters. At the end of 2015, I posted this photo.
At the time I had around 3,000 followers, and had the photo get 214 likes and 16 comments in 1 hour. Not bad. Then, I pressed on 214 likes to see who was liking this content, and took screenshots of the 10 most recent likes. 6 of these accounts looked suspicious to me and my plan was to come back when I wrote this article to see where they were at. My hypothesis was that these were fake account just based on their names account stats.
Checking in almost 14 months later, where are these accounts now? Some are deleted, and the ones that aren’t haven’t really been touched since. Go have a peek for yourself.
Here’s what I look for when trying to spot what I’d call a fake account.
- A new account with less than 30 photos. In an attempt to look authentic, they’ll adds a bunch of photos on or around the same day of their account’s creation. It makes them look sooo much more believable than the no-profile-picture, content-void fake accounts.
- An account name that looks more like a jumble of letters and numbers. That’s because most, in my opinion, are randomly generated usernames, part of a larger bot farm of fake accounts.
- An unreasonably high followers to post ratio. That’s not how this works. You don’t post 5 cell phone shots and get over a 1000 followers. Maybe things are different in Kyrgyzstan, who knows.
- All of their followers have the same suspicious qualities. Robots liking robots to fool the humans into thinking they’re real people.
Any skeptic, including myself, would ask “well how do we know you didn’t cherry pick these results? How do we know these aren’t real people and your confirmation bias is skewing this data? What if these people just got bored with IG and deleted their accounts.” You could also ask, what do I have to gain by making any of this up, and why am I wasting my time Photoshopping make-believe accounts that have either changed or no longer exist? All of these questions can be answered by having a look for yourself on any botted account.
You can argue that maybe these people had accounts but just weren’t active posters. But just assuming that you can take my word on this, let’s step back and ask an important question: aside from increasing your like count by 1, what the hell does this engagement do for you?
One thing you’ll see if you look at who is liking botters’ photos, is that a ton are foreign accounts. Now, obviously there is nothing wrong with a worldwide following, but it certainly raises some questions in an age of massive bot farms popping up in developing nations and leaves you wondering if the results of botting are a bit more superficial than Instagress’s claims.
Have a look at my follower statistics for @canon_bw. It’s very interesting to see 4 out of the top 5 cities my followers come from are cities outside the US. Jakarta, Istanbul, Mexico City. When you compare these results with my @calder account, the results of botting are evident. What these results mean is up for interpretation, but are people in Malaysia engaging in my content organically?
As suspicious as I think all that is, I’m not saying the results are totally fabricated. Botting also manipulates very real people into interacting with your account. People who bot will say this is the best part of using an automation service — that it connects you with people you would have never even known existed otherwise. And that’s true. I’ve seen friendships develop from hollow Instagress interactions. But more often than not, the “following” scenario plays out:
How to Tell if Someone Is Botting
To see if someone is botting, you need to be following them. Go to your activity page and select the Following tab on top. This lists out what the accounts you follow are doing (mainly what photos they’re ‘liking’). If a user is logged in, you’ll see what they’re liking in real time, and if you follow botters, you’ll see the tell-tale signs of Instagram automation.
A botter will almost always be listed as having liked 8 photos within the last few seconds. Here’s a comparison of bot activity versus what normal activity looks like:
If you want to give them the benefit of the doubt because maybe they’ve just happened to like 8 photos in the last minute, keep checking back. As you can see, the bot is liking content round the clock, and when you return to the screen at any point in the day, you’ll likely see their profiles at the top of this list.
A Quick Rant on Hashtags
Hashtags are the fuel behind every effective bot, and as a result, they’re the biggest beneficiary of bot activity. Even if you aren’t using bots, hashtagging your work will get you more passive engagement as bots around the world target your content.
The Issues with Bots
I’ve had many discussions with Instagrammers who use bots and support their use. Their reasons include
- Everyone’s doing it, so I need to do it. Yes, a lot of people on Instagram are doing it. It’s troubling. In an environment where we equate more likes and followers with better photos and better photographers, for many think it’s a no-brainer to bot their account. I like to compare this scenario with the use of steroids in professional sports, let’s say baseball. Yes steroids help baseball players get stronger, hit more home runs, and establish a legacy – just like bots help IG accounts get more eyeballs, get more engagement, and propel follower counts into the hundreds of thousands. But steroids are banned in the sport, just like bots are banned on Instagram. As a society, we vilify athletes for cheating the system, but in a community like Instagram, we don’t apply the same logic – we celebrate it. Every botter on IG deserves an asterisk by their follower account, because it’s not even close to being indicative of what their following would be without the unfair advantage.
- It’s like having an assistant or gallery work for you, building engagement without having to stare at my phone. I think a cheap, banned piece of software makes a pretty lame assistant, but whatever you have to tell yourself to sleep at night.
- I’ll only do it for a little while. Once I’ve built a strong following I’ll stop. Once you start, why stop? Stopping would imply some sense of wrongdoing, wouldn’t it? Going off the early steroids in baseball metaphor, once you stop botting, your engagement starts to taper off, the juice wears off. Let’s face it, no matter how connected you feel to your new following, your account is no longer ‘liking’ tens of thousands of other people’s photos, which means significantly less people are visiting your page and returning the favor. Even if you consistently like and comment on everything in your newsfeed, there’s no way you can match the mass engagement of Instagress. Pretty soon, you can be an account with a large following with a low % engagement rate, which looks pretty bad.
- Brands say I need more followers and more engagement before they’ll work with me. A lot of photographers get plenty of work without a large social media following – that should be enough to put the argument to bed right there. Let your work speak for itself. You can fake engagement, but you can’t fake solid, original content that clients want to pay money for.
Why Instagram Won’t Do Anything About This Issue
For one thing, Instagram is killing it right now. Every time Facebook reports their financial earnings, they need to show robust growth in their flagship products; almost just as importantly, they need to show healthy engagement. Growth and engagement are the life forces of Facebook’s stock, and any decrease in either can send shares south.
Now, consider that my @canon_bw account was liking over 30,000 photos every month along with thousands and thousands of comments. That doesn’t even include the activity generated from people responding and liking my images/following me in return. If I took every Instagram user I know in my life who doesn’t use a bot, it’s more than likely that my single account generated more “activity” than everyone else over the last year combined.
If we take into account the massive number of people botting everyday all around the world, the number of likes and comments are astronomical. It’s very unlikely that this huge engagement engine will ever be shut down by Facebook Inc. The relationship between Instagram and botters is seemingly symbiotic, but I argue that in the long run, Instagram suffers.
The Economy of Instagram
I like to look at Instagram as an economy of content producers and consumers, where the currencies of the land are likes and comments. When you consider an organic like or comment, there’s a lot behind such a simple action. Friends, family, and acquaintances – usually the people you follow and interact with are parts of your life in someway. (We are rarely flipping through a feed of anonymous content.) Then, one of those people needs to create content that inspires a like or comment.
It might seem simple, but a like can have a lot of weight behind it – it’s validation, it’s a hug, it’s a high five. These actions have worth – so much so that people will do things like pay money to users with large followings for a shout out, all in the hopes that they get more eyeballs on their own works, get more likes, get more followers, get more dopamine.
When you’re building your account (legitimately) you need to interact with others. Instagram is a two-way street, and you’ll get more attention if you give others more attention. Just like in real world economies, you need to work to collect the currency that makes you successful. Nothing is easy in Instagram land, unless, of course, robot clones.
Imagine a scenario in any other economy where you could pay a pittance (Instagress is $10 a month) to rapidly generate currency. While you go about your life, enjoying time with your friends, working, sleeping, etc, a robot is diligently minting cash for you even though such a robot is against the law. Some individuals in this economy work hard and make an honest living without the help of a robot, while others brazenly break the law and use these robots to their maximum potential. The result, aside from social injustice, is currency inflation. When likes and comments are so easily acquired with a bot, the worth behind these actions is diminished.
Why This is Bad for Instagram Long Term
I can post the exact same image on my real account @calder and on my experimental account @canon_bw, and despite the fact that I’ve worked 1000 times harder on my @calder account, @canon_bw will get 3-5 times more engagement without fail. In this reality, what does it really matter how many likes I get on my own account? I was able to get so many more without even trying by cheating the system. It goes against the adage of ‘good pay for good work,’ and the worst part of all, the cheaters are getting away with it
Ultimately this isn’t good for Instagram. For many users, getting even 100 likes is a substantial achievement. Unfortunately, this feat is quickly overshadowed by a growing number of users getting thousands of likes per photo (a monumental feat doing things purely organic). It can be demoralizing to see others easily reaching these heights with increasing frequency. I really used to love using this platform, but ever since I realized a lot of creators were cheating the system, it’s lost its luster.
To Sum It All Up
All this being said, botting alone doesn’t make a successful six-figure Instagram account. In the same amount of time that I ran this experiment, I’ve seen botters grow accounts to 50k+ followers. You still have to actively engage with followers to grow and maintain a committed following with likes, comments, follows, and DMs. You still have to customize hashtag lists for each type photo or video. You still have to develop relationships with IG communities and their admins so that you get shout outs and features. And you still need to consistently produce decent content.
It’s very hard work and very time consuming, so don’t get me wrong, you have to do a lot to grow a large account. But if you do all of these things regularly, and harness the power of a bot interacting with thousands of people around the world, you have an incredibly unfair advantage over non-botting users.
Fake it until you make it is the Instagram botter’s battle cry. But making it on Instagram doesn’t mean you’ve made a career as a photographer. Successful photographers do not need Instagress’s hollow validation to create good work for good clients. And I think that’s all it is — those who bot are seeking validation for what they’re producing. They saw others in their industry getting a bunch of likes and followers and suddenly they felt the need to catch up.
This is what less talented athletes do in sports by taking steroids and what less hard working students in school do by cheating. You can try to justify the practice all you want, but at the end of the day, deep down, you know what you’re doing is wrong.
The last thing I want you to take away from this is that botting is a path to Instagram success. Instead, I hope you will pick up the fight against automation services. Tell your friend who bots that’s there’s a better way to Instagram. Stay away from services like Instagress completely. Don’t be drawn in by over-inflated numbers other content creators have on the platform.
I hope someday Facebook Inc will get involved and do the right thing, but until that unlikely day comes, it’s up to us to call it out when we see it and reject it.