The Mathematics of Popularity in the Age of Instagram

This post and the images used with it originally appeared on Street Sihlouettes. It has been syndicated and republished with permission. All content copyright Horatio Tan. Syndication by Anthony Thurston.

Should photographers be judged by the size of their Instagram following? From the perspective of talent, it would seem unfair to rate a photographer in such an arbitrary way. But is it really unfair?

It is, but life is unfair. Get use to it.

The correct way of sizing up a photographer is too technical for the average person to comprehend, let alone future clients. Given the reality, evaluating the worth of photographers by the size of their following is an easy and uncomplicated alternative.

Because of that, photographers on Instagram are always looking for ways to increase their following. It is a numbers game after all. The greater the following, the greater the perceived value of a photographer.

With that being the case, photographers tend to be very active on Instagram. They post photos into the void, hoping to drum up interest and gain followers based on the quality and quantity of featured work. This works for some photographers, while it doesn’t for others. Why is that?

To answer that question, it is necessary to understand how Instagram works.

For those of you have been following me, it’s no secret that I’ve been interested in Instagram since I started to blog back in June of 2016. I’ve written about photographing for likes back in September in my write up, “A Crisis of Purpose in the Age of Instagram”. And I’ve gained a modest following since then. And in the process, I’ve come to learn quite a few things about Instagram – which I would like to share with you.

First, a little bit of a background regarding my methodology.

Because I wanted to understand how Instagram worked, I had placed a couple of restrictions in the way I was allowed to participate. I am only allowed to create content. In other words, content creation is the only way in which I can get likes, comments, and follows. I am not allowed to get the attention of other Instagram accounts by liking, commenting, or following. This was necessary in order for my results to demonstrate the accumulation of likes, comments, and follows from content creation alone.

What also needs mentioning is how I started my Instagram account in relative secrecy and anonymity. From the beginning, only three friends were aware of my Instagram account, and none of them were allowed follow me – not that they cared or wanted to. As such, I was not padded by 100 to 200 friends to get me started. I literally began with zero followers. Although since then, I have gained roughly a dozen followers from collaborations, including my #bff Anna.

So what did I find out?

Well, Instagram is an algorithm. I know, not the most profound discovery. But wait. As much as we all know that Instagram is an App, we don’t think about it in terms of a computer program. We tend to regard Instagram as a community or as an image sharing platform. But what we rarely say is Instagram is a series of zeroes and ones.

So what does this mean? Well, the way that Instagram behaves is predictable. It follows certain patterns based on rules that is programmed into its algorithm. But what are these rules?

Before we can figure out what these rules are, we have to make some assumptions. We need to define what Instagram wants us to do – which I think is pretty self obvious. Instagram wants us to post as many images as possible. The more active we are on Instagram, the more relevant it is as a social media platform. This is the core of Instagram’s business model. So it is crucial that we participate by posting more images. Given that rationale, we assume that Instagram’s algorithm is based on a system of rules that rewards the posting of images.

So how does Instagram reward posts? Instagram does that by increasing the feed of new posts within the first 30 minutes of the post. That is the first rule followed by this algorithm. Unfortunately, that isn’t much of a surprise. Everyone knows this. But do you know what happens after 30 minutes?

This is where the fun begins. The rules that this algorithm follows continue to reward the post if it receives enough likes within a period of time. From my observation, if a post receives 100 likes within 30 minutes, it will continue to spread for another 30 minutes. If it reaches 200 likes within an hour, the post continues for another hour. Once a post reaches 500 likes within five hours, the rule of the algorithm will usually spread the post for a full 12 hours. If it reaches 1000 likes within 12 hours, the post usually spreads a full 24 hours. And at 1500 likes within 24 hours, the feed usually lingers on for another day. At over 2000 likes, it lingers on for a third day. From my experience, this is what I’ve observed.

So why is it important to understand the algorithm of likes, if one is trying to gain followers? Well, the more you are liked, the longer your post will be seen on the suggested posts of other accounts. That means that the probability of being liked or followed increases. From my estimation, Instagram tries to give you enough exposure for 1 follow in every 20-50 likes, depending on how many followers you already have.

Yes, Instagram rewards high producing Instagram accounts. Based on the size of your following, your posts are seen by more Instagram accounts – not only by your own followers or those who have liked your posts, but also those who have never seen your posts at all.

From my observations, this increase in exposure begin at 1,000 followers. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that reaching the 1,000 follower milestone advances an Instagram account to the next tier reward level – like a video game. This increases exposure which in turn accelerates the likelihood of getting more followers. This is a logical assumption, given what I have observed with Instagram’s follow algorithm. To illustrate this, it took me 4 months to reach 1000 followers. After that, it took me only an addition 4 months to reach 5,000 followers. It has only been another three weeks more, and I’ve already surpassed 6,500 followers.

I haven’t reached 10,000 followers yet, but I have seen evidence of increased rewards on other Instagram accounts that have passed that mark. On two instances, I’ve seen Instagram rewarding an additional 100 followers a day for a period of a week.

So why does Instagram reward accounts with large followings?

Again, we can assume it has to do with their business model. They want to encourage posting of content. And the only way to encourage posting is through an unspoken incentive system written in its algorithm. The more you’re rewarded, the more you’re addicted to creating and posting new content, which in turn encourages interaction and the relevance of Instagram. The addiction is real, with release of dopamine in your brain every time someone new follows you.

Mind you, you don’t have to be like me. You don’t have to adhere unreasonably to a strict set of guidelines. Content creation and depending on the Instagram’s algorithm isn’t the only way to get others on Instagram to take notice of you, for the sake of getting follows. I mean, you can always cheat, which is a strategy I summed up in my write up, “Creating Value in a Low Barrier to Entry Environment”.

The tools of community can be repurposed for the sake of getting noticed by others on Instagram. I should know, because I’ve been the source of multiple attempts to be noticed by others, for the sake of converting me to become a follower.

So how does one cheat on Instagram? You can cheat by liking, commenting, mentioning someone in a post, tagging someone in a post, or by following.

The strategy of liking can be done in three different ways.
1. Like someone who gets very few likes per post. That way, your like will be seen by that person.
2. Like a much older post, since that is irregular and eye catching.
3. Like multiple posts, since that will also get someone’s attention.

As for the strategy of commenting, it can be approached in three different ways.
1. Say something nice and complementary.
2. Say something outlandish and unexpected or even rude.
3. Say something relevant to elicit interaction, like a question.

There are another two ways to use comments to get noticed.
1. Mention someone else on a post.
2. Comment on someone else’s comment.

As for the strategy of following, this can be done in two different ways.
1. Follow with the expectation to be followed
2. Follow and unfollow the same person continuously, in order to be noticed continuously at the top of someone else’s notification.
However, it should be noted that the follow strategy is not an especially effective method of gaining followers – especially if one unfollows shortly after following.

A final strategy is tag another Instagram account onto the image of a post. As a result, the tagged account will receive two notifications – one under the notification page and one under the profile page. However, this method can be regarded as too direct and annoying.

From what I have observed in those who practice these strategies, it does appear to work to some extent. But in the end, converting someone to follow requires more than just to be seen. Getting someone to follow you depends on a different set of conditions which I will discuss at a later date. Though with that said, in comparing my progress to a handful of Instagram accounts who practice these methods, proper content creation is more effective than cheating.

In the final analysis, Instagram, being an algorithm, is a numbers game. Having more followers isn’t an accurate way of sizing up a photographer. But since that number is used to evaluate a photographer’s worth, growing a following on Instagram has become a necessary evil. It is as important as a college hopeful’s SAT score. With that said, having a better understanding of how Instagram works makes sense. Those who understand the algorithm of Instagram can begin to create content that is tailored to optimizing likes.

So how does one optimize likes? That I am afraid is a completely different problem. I will discuss that at a later date. However, much of what you need to know has already been summarized in my write up, “Creating Value In a Low Barrier to Entry Environment”.

Please also note that what I have written is speculative, based on what I have observed in my own experimentation on Instagram. But from my perspective, I am of the opinion that I am on the right direction, given our improved statistics from five months ago. To see how we performed in September, please refer to my write up, “A Crisis of Purpose In the Age of Instagram”.

All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom and cropped for Instagram.

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Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.