COLUMN: Algorithm and Blues

by Brendan Pollecutt

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The Satirist @daddyissues_ owned by Violet Benson: 4m followers / The Art Consultant @love.watts owned by Jordan Watts: 1.6m followers / The Entertainer @kingdemic owned by Demic: 1.2m followers / The Model @haileebobailee owned by Hailee Lautenbach: 340k followers / The Activist
@byefelipe owned by Alexandra Tweeten: 424k followers / The Art Curators @streetartglobe owned by Anonymous: 7m followers / The Fashion Blogger @alwaysjudging owned by Courtney Trop: 304k followers 

A few months ago I posted a Trump parody video on my Instagram account.

I got a decent showing—600 or so views, 60 comments. Above par some might say. Then, an anti-Trump meme account reposted that video and that account got 10 000 views. It was then reposted two or three times, and ended up with more than 100,000 views on other people’s accounts. It had gone viral. I waited with baited breath for my follower account to explode. Two days went by, and my account grew by... 3 followers. And they were people that I already knew. 

That lead me to wonder: what was I doing wrong? Or rather, what were the others doing right? I reached out to some prominent ‘grammers—from the activist to satirist to the art curator, to find out the secrets behind going viral. 

Turns out, there are three elements to curating a successful Instagram account: Content, Engagement, Consistency. Find a unique voice, find a way of getting it heard, and be sure to keep delivering or risk drowning in a sea of 800 million Instagram users. 

Violet Benson of @daddyissues_ found her account’s voice by assessing and pinpointing the response to her content. “It wasn’t just me posting one meme and that’s what got people’s attention,” she says. It was a symbiotic process where both she and her followers discovered the account’s identity together. “Understanding what they want and what they like. They created @daddyissues_.” When I ask her to describe that voice now that it’s fully formed, she says, “A girl that doesn't have her shit together. She's doing her best to figure life out. One drink at a time, and one dick at a time.” 

Activist and feminist, Alexandra Tweeten, stumbled onto her account’s voice almost by accident. @byefelipe which features screenshots from dating apps, defines itself as “Calling out dudes who turn hostile when rejected or ignored.” It started out as an inside joke between her and her friends. “I kept on thinking throughout the four years that I've been doing this, no one's going to care about this next week.” But what she created was incredibly zeitgeisty, not to mention highly entertaining. 

The eye candy route can pay instant dividends, but even if you’re truly genetically blessed and post bikini selfies all day, that’ll only get you so far. Self-proclaimed mactress (model+actress), Hailee Lautenbach, tells me a lot of her model friends plateau while her account continues to grow, “I show personality and that’s why people gravitate towards me,” she says. I don’t post those fifteen-second selfie videos or dumb captions. I really have no filter, I share my whole life with everybody.” 

Authenticity is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when talking about Instagram—it’s a distant second to its cousin, Narcissism. Facetuning a picture and sharing it with your friends who weigh in with comments like, slay, gorj, lashes4days, will give you a quick rush but it’s not going to grow your following. As shocking as it sounds, people may be genuinely interested in the real you. “I think my uncensored posting and being my true self, although that may not always be defined as “perfect,” has helped me grow my IG,” says fashion blogger Courtney Trop of @alwaysjudging. “I’m literally out there being as much as myself as I can in front of 300k people, and it’s become my career.” 

So just find my voice and the millions will follow? Well, not quite. The great deity of the gram, The Algorithm, rewards mass engagement. If you’re going to truly be viral, you better be sleeping with a lot of people, all the time. Art account @streetartglobe explains, “The Instagram algorithm only shows your content to a small percentage of your followers.” Once the algorithm sees that there is conversation around a post, it will give it more exposure. Celebrities have it the easiest--minimal interaction, massive following. (For the record, Selena Gomez is the reigning queen o’ the gram with 135 million followers.) For those of us not touched by the holy water, it’s tough to elbow your way out of the masses. 

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Benson didn’t just elbow, she went to war.

She saw the celebrity-follower link and focused on getting the famous to follow her. Knowing that the true celebs were out of reach, she would find the friends of celebrities and start engaging with their accounts. Those friends noticed who she was and voila, started sharing @daddyissues_ posts with their famous pals. She remembers sitting in her cubicle at an accounting firm when the first bonafide celebrity follower noticed her. “I saw Joe Jonas liking my pic and then he started following me, ‘I was like, oh my god Joe Jonas just followed me. Finally I’ve made it,’” she tells me, laughing. (@joejonas has 6.9 million followers.) 

@love.watts, curated by Jordan Watts, differentiates itself from other art accounts through its luscious and often provocative content. That point of view caught the attention of one @badgalriri, aka Rihanna (63.1 million followers) and gave the account a very healthy piggyback. “It was like, OK I have a major celebrity following and I just got, you know, 30,000 of her fans to follow me as well,” says Watts. 

Once your post picks up engagement, it may land on Instagram’s Explore page, a boon for follower harvesting. “Sometimes we grow as little as 5,000 followers in a day, sometimes as much as 30,000 new followers in a day,” say the guys from @streetartglobe.“It all depends on how many of our posts hit that page.” (According to them, usually around 75% of all their posts are making it there.) 

Borrowed or some say, brazenly stolen from Snapchat, the Instagram story debuted in August 2016 and became an engagement game changer. “Stories are a better way for me to communicate with my fans and reply to all comments,” says Lautenbach. “When they respond to a story it goes to my DMs and I am able to respond to that better. It makes people think that you’re their friend.” Trop tells me that the story is a spontaneous way to engage with her audience. “People get to see your unedited, more raw and real self.” 

“Instagram stories allow me to brand myself and get my face out there,” says Demic who curates @kingdemic. His account is largely filled with funny videos and memes, so the story is a great way to engage on a personal level. But more importantly, “Outside of the bio, it provides the only place where you can hyperlink.” (Hyperlink is the swipe up feature in Instagram stories, allowing users to link to another website. It is also one very significant step towards making Instagram a full-blown commercial experience.) 

Of course there are ways to bait engagement-- Tag someone who needs this... If you’re an Aries, share this. If it’s all too tedious, look outside of the app. Traditional media still has a large reach. @byeFelipe got a big bump when it was featured in an article in The Atlantic. Reposted in both the Huffington Post and The Guardian, Tweeten saw her follower tally shoot up by 30k that very day. 

At last update (March 2018) Instagram tweaked its algorithm yet again. What arrives at the top of the feed is an ongoing negotiation between popularity and chronology. Try to figure it out or just roll up your sleeves and post. “You will never grow without consistency,” says Demic “The sweet spot is hitting between 8 and 12 posts a day.” Benson, who creates a lot of her own content. splitting her time between her online store and a Youtube show, went from six posts a day a few years back, to just one or two a day now. Trop has no idea how often she posts. She says the key to sustaining her following is about being present and being able to teach people something. 

Tweeten, who has just wrapped up her book, Delights of Modern Dating, tries to find something to post every day but acknowledges it can be very difficult with everything else going on in her life. “I’m only one person,” she laments, laughing. So there it is. Content, Engagement, Consistency. I was failing on all three fronts. Could I even define my account? A few funny videos interspersed with pictures from my vacations and friends’ weddings. Its voice was more like a raspy whisper. Then again, would I really want this kind of mega following? Almost everyone I spoke to had experienced some kind of anxiety and even depression, which makes perfect sense. The gram was designed to deliver bite-sized dopamine kicks. Like a bad coke habit, it can really lift you up but drop you just as easily. And, if it’s about money, how much could I really make? 

“Tens of millions of dollars,” says David Michaels of The Levia Group. He is a lawyer who represents influencers and tells me he is regularly negotiating these kinds of deals for his clients. The actual revenue created for a brand can run into the hundreds of millions. “Instagram is probably the most meaningful commercial platform that's ever been created,” David states. “I think they're going to present a threat to the likes of Amazon.” 

So my little backyard account could become a player in the next big media juggernaut? Not very likely, it seems. The landscape is shifting. “You’ve got to be like a crazy Soundcloud rapper or something to get the same kind of momentum like you used to be able to,” says Watts. He is skeptical of accounts growing in the millions of followers from month to month, “It’s literally impossible.” He theorizes that followers and likes are bought on the “back end,” as he puts it. “There’s a lot of juicing and steroids involved.” 

Instagram has declared war on the bots and is actively fighting fake accounts and fake engagement. But perhaps corporate engagement, although not necessarily fake, is the real threat to the grassroots voice that propelled this app in the first place. Demic sees a bleak future. “It will be impossible to build a large following unless you come from a corporation willing to spend a lot of money,” he says. 

We should have seen the writing on the wall. Instagram was where the cool kids went to get away from Facebook. Now you walk into the club and it’s like “Oh hi mom, what are you doing in here?” 

Oh well. There’s probably another cool social media app around the corner. I guess I’ll just wait for that. Or maybe I’ll look into that Soundcloud rapping thing. Until then, I’ll just post things that make my friends smile, and do it at a very leisurely pace.

Written by Brendan Pollecutt (@brahbren 712 followers)

Illustrations by Paula Castro with Breed London