Spilling my guts about hacking Instagram

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” — Diane Arbus

A shameful secret: I was actually nervous to create that Instagram account. It felt like a big thing! I was claiming the title—pho-tog-ra-pher. Did I deserve it? I hadn't studied it in school and I didn't know much about its culture or history as an artistic form. No one paid me for it—I just liked taking pictures. I was jealous of the influencers with big Instagram followings and big, beautiful grids of perfect, curated images. And those "K"s—or the stratospheric "M"s—at the end of their follower counts!

I didn't tell anyone about my new account. I posted one photo—I still remember—an image of a life-sized stone head partially buried face-up into the ground staring back at the camera.

Nothing happened. I posted another image. Nothing.

I read a dozen articles on how to grow your Instagram following: Have a consistent theme and color palette. Post a lot, but not too much. Post at reliable intervals, on a schedule. Follow a bunch of accounts and hope they follow you back. Comment on other people's stuff and hope they follow you back.

It worked. Slowly. I started following hundreds of other accounts. A few followed me back. I posted more images. A trickle of likes, this time from people I didn't know! The likes started rolling over from single to double digits. So that was what fame felt like!

But the glow faded. Soon I noticed a fuzzy cloud of unease floating around me. The work of "engaging" people on the service started to feel robotic and rote. I wanted more, faster. One day I stumbled on a service called Instagress that seemed to be something of an open secret in the shady underworld of Instagram growth hacking. I'd give them the password to my Instagram account, and their algorithm would automate all the work I'd been doing manually: following similar accounts, liking tons of photos, even posting simple emoji comments on other people's photos, like 🙌. Emojis are perfect because they're vapid enough to avoid being discovered as coming from a soulless automaton.

I continued to post religiously, every morning. I had a backlog of photos to post, which was good because I wasn't shooting much new stuff. With my secret new superpower, every time I opened the app I'd have a few more followers and likes. Magic. But I still didn't know if I was making good photos.

Hollowness is maybe the word for what I was feeling. Like knocking your knuckles on an empty metallic vat. And then—a sinking revelation: maybe my followers and emoji commenters were automatons too. I dreamed of Instagram as a massive, global network of robotic ghosts programmed to play a game where the winner is the first one to record the number 1,000,000,000 on a hard drive living in a grey Facebook bunker somewhere outside Prineville, Oregon. When the bit flips, a doomsday sequence initiates. "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity," cries a preacher. A mushroom cloud. A blinding white light. Game over.

While my follower count continued to grow, I felt dead creatively. The quality of the photos I was posting faded into a secondary concern, taking a backseat to the rules of the game.

In January of 2017 I turned off Instagress. In March, Instagram shut them down as part of a larger crack-down on automated activity on the platform.

When I stopped posting regularly, I had 1,455 followers and followed less than 200 accounts. I would usually break 100 likes on posts, which put my "engagement rate" somewhere around 10%. I believe I had officially earned the badge of "micro-influencer", a condition mostly unrelated to the unfortunate anatomical abnormality bearing a similar name.

Instagram Followers
I'm Over It: Graph Edition

The idea for an app that helps photographers develop their way of seeing has been floating around in my head for years. I noticed a lot of great resources for photographers to help with technical skills, camera settings, gear reviews, Lightroom guides, etc, etc. But not much in the way of engaging, critical thought on other photographers work, and nothing specifically for reliably getting feedback on my own work. On Nov. 25 2018, I registered the domain overinstagram.com. I originally wanted f🙌ckinstagram.com, but after a quick pow-wow with my PR director—my wife—we settled there.

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