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I am so upset. First of all, I am writing this on Microsoft Word rather than WordPress on account of the fact that my Internet has died on me and now I have to lug my Macbook all the way to the office, on the tube, to scab off the wifi at work. And to avoid answering why I’ve brought my personal device in to blog during the lunch hour.
Okay, now I’ve got that real life frustration out of the way let’s talk about the third part of my Pay to Play posts about how the commercialization of Instagram has affected its users, particularly bloggers who aren’t defined as casual accounts and not quite businesses either. Since my last post where I spoke about how big audiences mean less engagement, I’ve uncovered another twist to the thickening mystery plot that is Instagram.
Whilst a handful of my social media savvy friends believe that the shadow ban is a ‘scam’ and a fear tactic, my opinion is that if this is real and it certainly feels that it is – I would rather speak out about it now and admit I was wrong and got carried away with the hype than not mention it at all and sweep it under the rug.
So the story continues: In early March, I had finally returned to relatively high engagement. I was consistently getting over 1k likes for a particular set of photos, a healthy sign of recovery, although I can’t pin this down to anything other than people must have really just liked the dress I had on. Just one week from posting the last image from that ‘popular’ set, I started putting out photos from my Amsterdam trip. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, in retrospect, I now know very well when the shadow ban might have hit me because I noticed a strange drop in likes but the same amount of comments. This told me that there were fewer accounts outside of my following that could see my content but my current audience was still as active as ever. As I have always considered my engagement to be pretty good, I just wrote this off as part of the algorithm. I also noticed how everyone else was suffering with the same issues and thought, okay this is normal, nothing to worry about – hence this Pay to Play series with the aim of hypothesizing and hopefully, calming down everyone who has anxiety over their statistics.
Notice that I said, ‘if I am affected at all’. This is because this very popular site tells me that from most of the hashtags that I use, I’ve been obscured from the search – essentially, I’m shadow banned. But can we really come to such drastic and final conclusions based off one third-part website? I still see non-followers liking, following and occasionally commenting on my images. Furthermore, I’ve had friends unfollow me to test whether or not I appear under hashtags and they’ve proven that I do. Confusing right?
I’ll let you make up your own mind about how real and dominant the shadow ban is but before you embark on your little investigation, I will tell you right now – none of these forums or websites is able to tell you how to lift the ban if you believe that you’ve been inflicted. On top of that, most of the accounts or images that I’ve searched for using the shadow ban website have thrown up ‘Sorry this post is banned’ for everyone I’ve typed into it. I will admit that although this post does make a small contribution to the shadow ban conversation that is 80% speculation and 20% panic, I’ve tried my best to deduce the most concrete actions you can take to avoid being caught up in this:
Basically, if you can put your hand on your heart and say you’re a good, honest account yet you’ve realized that you’re blocked from most of your hashtags, it’s because you’ve reused them too many times. In short, in the eyes of Instagram, this is spammy behavior.
It’s not quite ‘fair’ is it? Are we supposed to find 30 new, fresh hashtags every time we post? Are we meant to take days off from the app in hope that it ‘resets’ and we can use the tags again? These are some ideas you’ll find if you dig as deep as I have but if you’ve found your search to be unsatisfactory then you might have already gleaned this: from Instagram’s lackluster response to this situation, I think it’s pretty obvious that this is not a priority for them to ‘fix’. Therefore, if an app with resources to sort out this widespread ‘accident’ has chosen not to address it, it all points to the notion that ‘shadow banning’ is intentional.
I hope that by now you’ve had some wine and moved through most of the stages of grief, because ideally you’ll be onto acceptance and ready to hear ‘why’. My initial premise for Pay to Play is that by encouraging users to buy promoted posts, Instagram can further monetize their product (we are the product). At present, only our followers can search for us via hashtags. Additionally, there’s been a huge crack down on third-party websites such as Instagress. Put this together and it starts to paint a picture of how Instagram is limiting the ways we can self-promote, regardless of whether its legitimate or not.
Let’s look at the options that we’re left with: shout for shouts, spam liking (could also get you shadow banned if you’re not already affected), loop giveaways (because ‘normal’ giveaways like the ones I currently do aren’t actually for getting more followers but giving back to your pre-existing audience) and then there are the very grey areas that we all know about but shall not speak of.
At this point, you may be thinking – what the hell is the point of carrying on? If that’s you, I’d like to ask you why you started your blog or Instagram in the first place. If it’s for a business purpose, I do sympathise because I understand how important social media is for a brand.
In the case that an account has a product to sell, I think that trying out a promoted post is not a bad way to experiment with boosting your visibility.
If it’s to share your passion and creativity, then I am in the same boat as you and I want to remind you that although numbers do matter – because to say it doesn’t is purely delusional (I mean why have you even read this far if it isn’t important to you?) – everyone is in the gutter right now so pull through, keep proving that you can make amazing content and that you’re authentic in your motivation to do so. However, if it’s because you want free shit then I think you need to find another blogger that can help you because you won’t find much sympathy from me here. Sorry not sorry.
Onto what I’ve promised you – for quite a while I felt that maybe I shouldn’t post the research that I did on the average likes of a UK blogger. I thought that since some people claim to be unaffected by this shadow ban and some blatantly have been, is it really fair to provide something to compare your numbers to? However, whatever changes happen, at the end of the day as long as it’s the follower or engagement count that’s going to get you paid work or your dream collaboration, people are still going to care a lot. So here it is, bearing in mind that I collected these samples after the alleged shadow ban occurred:
What I’d like you to take away from this post is that even if you think that the shadow ban is a very real threat: we have not been singled out. We haven’t been suspended for suspicious behavior so relax; you’re not a social media pariah. This limitation on hashtags could very well be the new norm. And as it’s affecting like, everyone, you shouldn’t care so much!
With that in mind, I have another request of you readers and I am aware that I may be going for a little too much but I think that this is important to speak out about this. I have noticed that there’s a prevalent, snarky attitude about how some large accounts out there only have a few hundred likes a photo.
Please stop, you don’t know what’s going on with them, maybe everything they have has been bought – but maybe it hasn’t and they’re scratching their heads wondering why their hard work has stopped paying off.
From looking at my sample pool, there are major outliers where some accounts have much larger engagement rates than the average, and some that are shockingly low. However, it’s not nice to make snide remarks and as you can tell from my previous post, engagement is very much to do with visibility. Also, having read this post about shadow bans, now you have an explanation for why accounts have their content obscured from hashtag searches. As naïve as this may be, I like to think that whenever someone is unkind about something, it’s because they can’t relate to it but I hope that with this post you can.
So now I conclude my last post of this series, which I must admit was quite unexpected. I really thought I’d be posting the engagement chart right at the start of the text and encouraging everyone to focus less on likes and more on content. I don’t want to detract from that message even though this has become a huge topic piece on its own. No matter how large or small your account is, let me tell you that you’ll get attention for your numbers but respect for your content. Just think about what matters the most to you and you can make up your own mind about where to set your priorities. Thanks for sticking with me for this third and final part of the series and I’d love to hear your thoughts on my Instagram comments section.
Runway Bandits jacket and top
Club Monaco shorts
House Thirteen jewellery
Larsson and Jennings watch
Sam Edelman shoes