Instagram fakers: what does it mean (and should we care)?
There's been a bit of uproar in the blogging world over the past few weeks around Instagram fakers: people who use bots and apps to boost their follower numbers. It's not unusual for there to be a bit of scandal in the blogging world, but what is unusual is that this has annoyed everyone, not just other bloggers.
What's the story with these Instagram fakers?
This is not a how-to guide on how we can all become Instagram fakers, but it is important to chat a bit about how it works. Essentially, there are two ways to "game" your Instagram numbers, both of which (generally) involve apps which will automate your Instagram activity (also known as bots).
The first way is by using an app that will automatically follow huge numbers of accounts from your Instagram account. Say, for example, on a Monday this app will follow 600 people from @rosemarymaccabe (my Instagram). The app will wait a certain length of time (usually 24 or 48 hours) before checking back in, seeing how many of those accounts followed back and then unfollowing those who didn't.
On Monday I'll follow 600 people; perhaps 140 will follow back, so on Wednesday my account will unfollow the other 460. (I had to double check the maths there – mortified for myself!) This way you can grow your follower numbers pretty quickly and with very little effort; over time, the results can be pretty impressive.
The second way is similar, but not exactly the same – it involves a bot that will automatically "like" a whole tonne of photographs from your account, often from people or accounts that you would never be interested in. Sometimes, if you go into your activity chart (where you see your own likes, just switch it to "following") you'll see accounts you follow have just liked 100-odd photographs from people in the Middle East. That's bot activity.
Of course, there's the other old chestnuts – plain ol' buying followers. Just Google "buy Instagram followers" and you'll find umpteen websites that will charge you not very much to give you a whole heap of followers. You can buy likes, too – so that, regardless of your follower count, your engagement appears high.
Why does it matter?
In a way, it doesn't – and honestly, for the average Instagram follower, who isn't a blogger or in the industry, it makes no difference. If you follow an account because you like the imagery they share and the content they provide, of course you'll like them regardless of how many followers they've bought, or how many are genuine.
But it's the trust element that can really grate. Instagram is a bit of a popularity contest, and how much respect would you have for someone who's essentially cheated their way to the top?
Of course, for those of us in the industry, it takes on a whole new tone when you realise that people have cheated their way to jobs, product endorsements and sponsorships. Think of it like this: imagine you had a new colleague who came in above you, was getting paid more than you and had a better title. She seems like a really great hire – that is, until you realise she's lied on her CV, and even though she may well be able to get the job done, she didn't get there on merit. It's galling.
It may all seem a little like playground bickering: "Why is she getting that free lipstick? She doesn't deserve it!" But blogging isn't all free lipsticks and trips abroad – bloggers can earn a pretty good living from having large audiences, and when it feels like someone is getting better jobs than you are and they've gamed the system, well. Bad feeling abounds.
How do you recognise Instagram fakers?
Here's where the onus falls on us – bloggers, readers and PRs / brands – to truly investigate what we're buying into (regardless of whether or not there's money involved).
Examining followers vs engagement is often one of the simplest methods cited when it comes to identifying Instagram fakers, but it's not foolproof. Take my Instagram account and compare it to James Kavanagh's, for example. He has a few more followers than I do (okay, like 6,000 more), but his engagement is massive compared to mine.
I put that down to the fact that his followers all follow him because they love him. Whereas my followers are more divided! Sure, some love me (er, not that many), but others follow because they used to read my stuff in The Irish Times. Others know me from my Xposé days. Perhaps I have some followers who are interested invegetarianism or lifting weights, or clean eating. My content is hugely varied – on Instagram as on my blog – and so I can't please all of the people, all of the time. And I've never bought a single follower.
However, there are some tools you can use to look closely at how and when your favourite Instagrammers get their followers. Social Blade is one of the most accurate – simply insert a username you want to check, pick your platform and it'll show you how many followers they have, how many they gain or lose in any given day, and how many they follow or unfollow in any given day.
What you're looking for are big spikes – say, for example, if someone's follower numbers go up by 500-odd on roughly the same day every month, there's a strong chance that they're buying followers. Same with their following numbers; peaks and troughs are a sure indicator of something going awry.
Ultimately, it shouldn't put you off following accounts you enjoy – but what it should do is make brands more aware of the fact that follower numbers aren't the be-all and end-all. Fake followers aren't going to be the ones who run into Boots to buy the product you recommended and they're not going to be the ones who will watch your YouTube videos, or even read your blogs.
If in doubt, ask for stats – screengrabs of analytics across all social platforms. And don't take no for an answer!