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A Brief History of Instagram Growth Hacking

In Episode 83 of the now defunct Hashtagged Podcast, Jordan Powers interviews Tyson Wheat, who talked about the early days of Instagram. Back then (2011), he says, “You just needed 10 or so likes within 5 minutes to get onto the popular page.”  When I heard this, I realized Instagram was gamed from the beginning. This isn’t saying that without enough hard work, luck and skill you couldn’t use Instagram in 2011 to launch a career. It’s just that already in 2011, you’re competing in the Tour de France with somebody that’s doping, or you’re in a sport where you’re competing with somebody on steroids. Instagram was never fair. The superb photos that ended up on the popular page back then sure had me fooled, though.

The first screenshot I have of Instagram from October of 2011
The first screenshot I have of Instagram from October of 2011

Hey, spamming likes to gain follows worked back then in 2011

By 2012, you could see that something was wrong in all social photo apps. People were gaming the system.

Hardwork and talent were still wonderfully rewarded on Insta back in 2011/2012.

In 2010, Sean Ellis coined the term growth hacking. Andrew Chen goes on at length in this classic article on what it means to be a growth hacker. For me though, growth hacking is finding flaws in the system and exploiting them in ways very similar to how the Russians tipped the 2016 election using hacking. So how did folks take advantage of the growth hacks on the popular page? In a similar way that diggs got monetized (Remember Digg?) the popular page on Instagram got monetized. According to Phil Gonzalez, a consortium of shady Turkish marketers would report a photo that naturally got to the popular page so it would get taken down, and then replace it with a post that got 100s of artificial likes from fake accounts within minutes.

But the popular page really didn’t help that much. I got on it once by posting around 8pm at my silent reading book club back in 2012. A few hundred likes and a score of follows rolled in finally pushing me above 100 followers. I had been stuck at below 100 for a year which is laughable now, but I’d have to say those first 100 followers were all awesome people and really great photographers. Eventually, Instagram would replace the popular page with the explore page, and basically had the algorithm dictate which photos got shown to whom on that page. But crappy photos selling the scam of the week (pills or bitcoin depending on the year) always seemed to find a way there every now and then.

What really helped grow accounts was becoming a suggested user. Instagram could choose anyone and let them be suggested for at least two weeks to years. This meant that when people first signed up, the UI would strongly suggest that they follow the suggested user. You could grow at a rate of 10,000 followers a week as a suggested user.

How’d this dude get suggested on the bottom? His photos are so so.

The second way to grow would be to get a suggested user to follow you. This is where some shady paying for follows came in.

The 3rd way was doing a free for all where you gave photos to people, asked them to do their best edit, and you would choose photos to feature as long as they tagged you in the photo of yours that they posted.

The 4th way, way back in 2012 was botting by using follow and unfollow. Companies like Massplanner which Instagram has now shutdown would sell these services for around 50 to 100 a month depending on how many followers you wanted. It’s not as shady as fake accounts since all you’re doing is suckering someone by following them, and then unfollowing them. Lots of folks have used this strategy from 2012 to 2016 to grow from 0 to 100,000 in a year. The downside is that your engagement is real low, and now that everybody is clued into it, your account just looks fake. The problem is folks who got suggested user back in the day, or coat-tailed off of them look just as fake. What’s even worse is that the algorithm for awhile gave the advantage to folks that botted. Here’s a chart showing that.

In blue @kingy_kings legit working hard to grow; in orange, @jackson.groves doing follow/unfollow by botting. The algorithm has them neck and neck, but then eventually the algorithm fails and rewards the cheater.

However by 2018, the algorithm would actually take away followers for botting, and it did this by feeding the botters to the botters as you can see in the chart below:

@teresa_ on Instagram is the worst. She’s botting and losing followers. lol

From 2016 to 2018 people would try the following to grow:

  • power likes, getting a like from a large account
  • paid features on huge accounts (1 million real followers or more)
  • DM groups – these really help lots with engagement, but sentiment analysis can reveal who uses fake comments. This is true if you don’t shoot bangers. I’ve seen accounts with 1000s of cake photos, and each cake photo is the best cake photo that someone’s ever seen. The idea behind this is similar to the hack Tyson mentioned above. Get 5 or so comments in 15 minutes to get way more likes than if you didn’t get the comments.
  • contests where you have to follow 20 to 40 people in order to enter
  • contests that offered a free camera if you followed them
  • follower networks where people grow multiple accounts to like and follow each other
  • The Gary Vee 2 cent hack; this got killed when the algorithm detects this and just makes sure the Top Page you see is the same as the Recent Page
  • getting a free feature from a large account
  • I’d say that the only strategy that works now is the last one which is just another way of saying “going viral.” Someone prove me wrong here, please.

    The result of all this is that:

    1. people take the same photos as everyone else, i.e. InstaRepeat
    2. people take crappier photos than before
    3. people are taught by Instagram to game the system and society

    This means Instagram is contributing to the downfall of society.

    What should you do if you care about photography? Delete the app. Go back to making zines like I have. If you can’t bear to delete the app, just use it for the DMs.

Social Media

The Post Friendship Era or Friendship is Dead

People use words for things that don’t exist. It’s how many authors do fiction. I’d like to add one more word to the set of things that don’t exist: Friendship.

Philosophically, the idea is old. The 18th century philosopher Kant even contemplated the idea of a friendless world:

“Even if there has never been a single example of a sincere friend, we would still be under the moral obligation to maintain pure sincerity in friendship.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)

I know friendship is dead because to be honest, I don’t have any friends – at least not the friends that existed for me from 2002 – 2006, or the friends I had in high school and college. Friendship was a full-time affair, and really shouldn’t it be? If what makes life worth having is the company of friends, how is it that technology is more important than friendship?

I look at old blog posts here and here, and can see that friendship was hanging out almost every day in the pursuit of some common good, and if not every day at least once a week.

Last year there was someone I knew that was suicidal. Who helped her? The two people that weren’t on Facebook, and on facebook this someone has over 2,000 “friends.”

I’m not going to say that the Internet is bad or that good and even miraculous things don’t come from the Internet.

I do agree with the theory found in “A General Theory of Love” written by two awesome doctors from UCSF that as biological creatures we need proximity and touch in order to heal, maintain, relate and friend.

We have to admit, those who have been around before and after the smart phone and before and after Facebook, that something is qualitatively different.

We have to admit there is something machine-like and sinister about our inability to authentically connect with others.

What can we do?

Be highly skeptical of the use of the word, “friend,” in social media. I won’t name names, but if you are a venture capitalist and somebody is calling you “friend” on Instagram, they are really only after your money. No, your photos are not awesome. Having money to buy great gear might give you bokeh or “sharp at the corners” but it doesn’t make you a photographer. You have to troll people these days to get an honest critique of your photos on Instagram.

If you find yourself calling someone a friend, ask yourself seriously if you’re confusing your feelings at the moment with the pre-requisite sincerity (see above) that is required of friendship.

Throw a dinner every now and then and see who invites you back. Honestly I’ve stopped throwing my Wednesday night dinners because:

1) I don’t feel I could ever meet the standards of people who throw dinners for me. This is only 2 people.
2) The majority of people I’ve invited over for dinner have never invited me over for dinner. About 33 people on Facebook that I just want to un-friend right now.
3) I’ve probably enjoyed your hospitality in some other way, but honestly, you and your crowd never made me feel good enough.

Such quibble as above is hardly worth the trouble. After all this is the post-friendship era.

Friendship is dead. Long live “friendship.”

iphone Mobile Apps Social Media TechBiz

Instagram Flexes Its Marketing Muscle with CommunityFirst

Instagram hit 200 million users a few months ago.

Of those 200 million users how many can Instagram engage?


The marketing team at Instagram sent out boxes to select users. Users with follower counts as low as 188, and as high as 679,450 got these boxes. These users posted photos to the #communityfirst hashtag. I created a list of likes and followers.

In the first 24 hours here are the stats:

117 users posted photos of what they got in these boxes
3506478 followers were a potential audience for the #communityfirst hashtag
78230 people liked the photos posted
2 percent were engaged

If a like is a “click through” which is highly dubious, a 2 percent CTR is about average.

Social Media TechBiz WebApps

High Quality Engagement from Instagram Photo Walks

Last year I hosted over 25 photo walks organized through Instagram and about half of these were branded “experiences.” I did this to learn more about photography, marketing and working with brands. It was a fun experience but not so fun realizing I helped generate millions in revenue and just got an Instagram mug from it. 😀

I was able to reach a large audience for a fraction of the cost of a TV commercial (< 50%) , and was able to produce measurable and actionable results. stolioriginal

Here’s some data from the Stolichnaya photo walk which had the hashtag #stolioriginal :

followers 234564
likes       9328
posts         67
guests        32

1240 (drinks & food)
1200 hotel + flight for organizer

$2440 for 234,564 viewers

Commercial for a show like Two and a Half Men
$215,000 per 30 second commercial
8.5 million viewers
$0.025 per viewer

In one evening Stoli was able to reach over 200,000 eyeballs at a cost of a penny per eyeball! Great stuff, right?

Mobile Apps Social Media TechBiz

A Social Media Guide to Growing Engagement on Instagram the Hard Way

We have clear, big data analytics from Curalate about what an engaging Instagram photo is. We can now create duck-face selfies, with lots of background and blue tones, at will, and get more likes.

I just hit 1000 followers a few weeks ago and average about 200 likes per photo. That’s an engagement of 20% that’s much higher than many of the brands or those on the suggested list.

How did I get here?

Well, thanks to those 1000+ followers, I grew engagement the hard way.

There are 3 reliable ways to do this.

1. Be engaged on Instagram: Like and comment positively on as many photos as your aesthetic sensibilities will allow you to. A good amount of time to spend reviewing and liking photos is 30 minutes a day split in the morning and evening. Think twice about leaving a critical comment since that isn’t really the culture of Instagram. If you are wondering where 30 minutes stacks up to the average user, it is 3 times more time than the average user. Like I said, this is the hard way.

2. Post really awesome photos: When you post a photo, post an awesome photo and use at least 11 hashtags. Here is a good sample of 11 hashtags to used based off of my interests and, a personal Instagram analytics site and viewer. This is the most effective method of getting new likes and follows within Instagram according to Curalate. When people comment on your photo, thank them or engage with them back in a positive way.
On weekends, participate in the Weekend Hashtag Project. If you have a personal brand that you are building and not a corporate one, you might get recognized by Instagram HQ from the Weekend Hashtag Project in a blog post. This will create even more engagement. Follow the Instagram account for announcements.

3. Best and funnest of all: go to the Photowalks. My Instagram account was stalled at around 200 followers for 2 years. It wasn’t until I started going out and meeting other Instagram users that I finally got to 1000. After every Photowalk, you can gain followers you met face to face, and then followers from those followers. Here’s awesome advice from a diehard Instagramer, Christian Beccara aka @throughthetinylens who has gotten lots of engagement, buzz, and met lots of folks on trips, recently to New York City:

For me it is about getting involved with the community, going out and shooting whenever possible, acknowledging other peoples comments and staying humble.

Great idea!

ruby on rails Social Media TechBiz WebApps

What the Next Rails Will Look Like

History repeats itself, yet it is obscure to the very people making it: innovators and inventors. Ruby on Rails was an invention that hit the scene in July of 2004 as a revelation. There was a video that promised that you could make a blog in less than 15 minutes that left many speechless.

When Rails hit the seen, my reaction was:

1. This is something that we should have been doing all along.

Books like The Pragmatic Programmer had been preaching what Rails was doing since the 1990s. Software engineers would half-heartedly code the “Rails ways” but never got around to building something like Rails.

2. I need less people on my web team.

It seemed that you could work with just a designer and get lots done. I didn’t have to go to IT as much as database issues. I could use generators and save hours of time.

3. That startup that seemed impossible now seems within reach.

I remember a young Chris Wanstrath at a Ruby meetup I hosted saying with a tired look in his face that he wished he was working in Ruby. He was at CNET / CBS Interactive at the time. He’s built the best tool for developers out there and I use every day.

That’s the past, now what’s the future?

The tough question to ask is, “What should we, as an industry, be doing that we are not?” The Rails philosophy was loudly yelling, “We aren’t doing DRY.”

It seems that there are 4 things that need to be done in the “next” Rails:

1. Mobile ready out of the box.

We should all be using CSS media queries and have the ability to support the mobile web. There are so many missed opportunities to retain users simply because mobile is still shockingly ignored. Mobile databases can even be integrated for a better application experience; visit Couchbase for more information and options.

2. Social Sharing out of the box.

This basically means that there has to be a standard for creating an API for APIs.

3. The backend will just look like an API.

Say good bye to complex SQL joins.

4. Designing tools with deep integration into the cloud.

Languages have been designed for CPUs in non-networked environments. This means that at a core-level, the next Rails will be SSL capable, e-commerce capable and ready to scale out of the box.  Hints of this can be seen in Erlang.

Social Media software Webalytics

In Twitter No One Can Hear You Scream

I’ve been wondering if Twitter is useful for mainstream people now that it has gone mainstream.

I used bufferapp on Friday and as an experiment posted a 2 pleas for help. Bufferapp calculates the most opportune times for sending tweets.

It’s been great for driving traffic to my blog but not so great with actual engagement.

Here are the results:

0 Replies
24 clicks

The tagline for the scifi film, Aliens, was “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.” Twitter is very much like space.

Social Media

What it’s like to sign up for Twitter in 2012?

I just signed up for a twitter account that I am going to use for giving bits of Buddhist wisdom for coders. The twitter account is @BuddhaCoder.

2007 was the year that Twitter made a huge splash at SxSW. It was the year that Facebook threw an awesome party.

I thought Twitter was so cool when when Karina Longworth followed me. Here’s a smart, geeky, beautiful film critic following me on Twitter and it was so awesome to meet her at that SxSW in 2007.

It’s now 2012. I’m in LA moving out of my apartment. I’ve wondered about how life was feeling stale. Where could I find and give inspiration? I created BuddhaCoder on Twitter, and when you sign up for Twitter this is what happens:

1. Sign-up is optimized with just name, email and password.
2. You are asked to follow a bunch of celebrities in different categories.
3. You are asked to have Twitter search through your contacts to find friends, but we know what that really means. *cough* Path

Once this is all done you see the tweets of folks you’ve followed.

Who follows you back or @ replies you?


The magic of meeting a Karina is gone.

Here is how I’d fix it:
1. Create Twitter ambassadors who reach out to folks as they join. Someone like Calvin Lee (@mayhemstudios) would be great for this, or Sarah Austin of @pop17. 3000 or so ambassadors that get special badges would be more than enough to handle the onslaught of 300k new users per day.

2. Pool anything spammy into a job queue for approval if it is directed at a new user. This will require something extensive in the Natural Language Processing realm that Jacob Perkins of Stream Hacker would know about.

Social Media

Should You Follow Your Frenemies?

tl;dr – No, waste of time.

Let’s face it. The world is a cruel place, and there are far more awful people than awesome people.

This is one of those first world problems, and my solution for it. Should you follow your frenemies?

A frenemy is someone that is your “friend” in social networks but in real life is out to get you. They “get” you economically or politically but they aren’t out to kill you.

I used to believe that you should “friend” every one but I soon realized that my on-line presence soon became a node for opportunists to get up a rung higher in the game of status.

Now, I’m selective. There are lots of folks that will say to you in the face, “Hey, let’s catch up.” Or “let’s do lunch soon.” But they do not really mean it. There are lots of folks that are plain nasty. One person invited me out to lunch just to say that he perceived me as lazy despite working on weekends and at the time having #1 apps for their segment in the Apple Store.

Anyways, I am un-following these folks. I don’t care about using foursquare to avoid them. I don’t care if they’re talking to my boss. The key here is to stay as light as possible.

Career Coding Questions Recruiting scalability hacking Social Media TechBiz

Coders Who Don’t Job Interview: Zed Shaw

I wrote a piece about the current state of job recruiting from a coder looking for work. I wondered:

What would it be like if you didn’t have to do a job interview?

(The non-tl;dr summary is below.)

By “job interview,” I just mean the normal process where I job candidate replies to an ad, contacts an employer directly, or works with a recruiter, and gets a job through that process. High-profile experts are courted, or work out a mutually beneficial deal where it doesn’t feel like an interview.

I asked around for folks that didn’t have to interview. One name that consistently came to the top was Zed Shaw.

Zed is the creator of the Mongrel Web Server, and a really great framework that is powered by Mongrel, Tir. Personally, I first heard of him from a video Leah Culver linked to on a talk that Zed gave, “The ACL is dead.” A careful viewing of that talk is always rewarded, especially if you are a coder freelancing for a corporation.

Here’s my interview with him (conducted over email). Thanks Zed!

Barce: What’s your own process for choosing the projects you want to work on?

Zed: Within my profession I try to just work on whatever is needed to get the
project or job done. Sometimes that ends up being a lot of crap work so
other people can do more important stuff. Professionally I don’t mind
this kind of work as it’s low investment and removes the pressure off
other folks who would rather do interesting things. I think I also tend
to pick off the lower level work because most of my original ideas are
usually too weird for a professional setting.

Personally, I tend to work on projects that match ideas I might have,
and usually they have a secondary motive that’s outside of programming.
Many times these ideas come from combining a couple of concepts, or
they’re based on a problem I’ve noticed, or they are just a kind of
funny joke or cool hack I thought up.

I think the most important thing is I don’t try to plan my inspiration
in my personal projects, but instead go with it when it comes. I don’t
have a “process”, and in fact I think “process” kills creativity.
Proess definitely helps make creative ideas a reality, but it doesn’t
create the initial concepts very well.

Professionally though, inspiration is for amateurs and I just do my

Barce: What advice can you give someone who feels trapped by their job or surrounded by recruiters?

Zed: Well, if you’re trapped by your job then I’d say start working on
getting a new one. Nobody is every really *trapped*, but maybe you
can’t just quit right away. Instead, work on projects at home,
constantly look for new work, and move to where the work is. Even if
it’s temporary, moving to say San Francisco during the boom times could
be a major boost to your career.

I’d also say that going back to school is a good way to update your life
and change your profession. I’m a firm believer in getting government
student loans and using them to go to school. They’re cheap, low
interest, and the US government is usually very nice about letting you
pay them back. I’m not so sure about other places around the world

Barcee: What’s the most disruptive technology you know about right now?

Zed: If I were to be honest, I’d have to say Facebook, even though I
absolutely hate it. It’s probably the one technology in recent history,
maybe after HTTP and the Browser, that is changing the way governments,
societies, and regular people work. It’s also sort of irritating that
the most important thing to hit most people’s lives is also one of the
most privacy invading companies in the world.

After that I’d have to say the rise of automated operations and
virtualized machines. Things like Xen, kvm, and even llvm as compiler
infrastructure are changing how systems are managed and deployed, which
then leads to bigger automation for large hetergenous networks. I’m
sort of waiting for operating systems to catch up and realize that their
configuration systems are getting in the way of real automation.

Barce: Thanks again, Zed, for the interview. The take aways that I hope readers get from this are:

  • Zed has open source projects that free him from the normal interviewing process. Building your own open source project is one way to free yourself.
  • “Professionally though, inspiration is for amateurs and I just do my work.”
  • “[W]ork on projects at home,
    constantly look for new work, and move to where the work is.”
  • Facebook is the most disruptive technology that’s changing governments… Virtualization / Cloud technologies are a 2nd.