Bringing realness back to Instagram (and beating the follow/unfollow game along the way)

The month of August was one of the most eye-opening periods for me ever since I started using social media. It was the month of the #30daysrealnesschallenge, an initiative intended to bring more authenticity to the community of people I know through social media, specifically Instagram.

Everything started when one day I checked my Instagram account one morning and saw that I had lost another dozen followers overnight. I noticed that several of the accounts that had followed me just a day earlier had unfollowed me again, without even a single interaction with my posts (such as a like or comment).

Needless to say, I was really annoyed by this observation, and even more disappointed when I tried to address the issue with some of the unfollowers and got blocked immediately as a reaction. It became very clear to me that those people hadn’t followed me because they liked my content, the only wanted me to become a number on their follower list, and as soon as they got what they wanted they disposed of me even faster than you can say ‘unfollow’…

I was by far not the first time this had happened, in fact I had more or less gotten used to gaining and losing the same amount of followers every single day ever since Instagram announced a change of its algorithm in 2017.

While, according to Instagram, the intention of this algorithm change was to “promote social interaction and remove fake accounts and bots”, most users of the platform reported a drastic decrease in the reach and visibility of their posts, resulting in a de facto stagnation of most account’s follower numbers and engagement.

For me, the “insights” function of Instagram confirmed this observation. It revealed that my posts were shown only to a very small number of people, and out of those an even smaller fraction (5-7%) wasn’t following me. That means no matter how highly engaging a post is, it just isn’t shown to new people. Small accounts (whether private or business) are effectively stunted in their growth because the algorithm actively prevents them from being seen by a broader audience. The result of this dilemma is that, in a desperate attempt to tweak the algorithm, many people seem to think they have to resort to unfair tactics to gain visibility and increase their reach.

The follow/unfollow game

Follow/unfollow is a tactic that many Instagram users, particularly so-called influencers, employ to grow their accounts quickly and easily. The principle is simple: they follow as many accounts as they can on one day in the hope of being followed back, only to then unfollow them again the next day, regardless of whether they did follow them back or not. Ideally, they end up with a lot of new followers while keeping the number of accounts they follow low (which they see as a measure of importance).

It is very much understandable that people are highly annoyed by these follow/unfollow strategists, seeing as it is fake and manipulating form of deception played by those who preach about authenticity and unfiltered honesty, and yet act in a brutally calculating way, only for their own gain and net worth. And what’s even more disappointing is that it effectively reduces the idea of Instagram being a social platform to absurdity.

So I wrote a post that day about how painfully annoying I found the follow/unfollow game, and suggested to start a 30-day challenge during the month of August to bring more realness and authenticity to social media.

The initiative was met with immense interest and enthusiasm. People shared their own stories and experiences about the unfair tactics they’ve been exposed to on social media, and it soon became clear that I wasn’t the only one who was craving to see more authentic content and interact with real people instead of being instrumentalized by the players of the follow/unfollow game. It was amazing to see how this topic resonated with many others, and how many beautiful contributions were posted during the month of the challenge.

Many aspects were touched during the challenge – the made-up photos stylized to pretend perfect bodies, perfect relationships and perfect lives, the selfie craze, the trend of sharing food pictures, or the weird offers of ‘organic growth’ promoters who promise you followers for money.

You can read all the stories under the hashtag #30daysrealnesschallenge on Instagram, and I thought it would also be a good idea to summarize all the useful pieces of advice collected during the challenge in this blog article. So here they are:

Go for realness. Make a point to interact only with real content, content that is not tuned to attract the masses. Choose authenticity over picture-perfection and give your likes and follows to those accounts that make an effort to interact rather than impress. It’s actually quite easy to identify staged & stylized photos versus real glimpses of people’s lives. Self-proclaimed influencers will usually just post dozens of visually appealing photos, but no real messages behind them. Authentic content, in contrast, is characterized by the stories people have to tell, not the impression they want to make with one meaningless, random post after the other.

Use hashtags the right way. Actively explore new accounts by using hashtags to find content you like, and use specific tags instead of the big ones that are used by millions of users. Influencers and generic accounts tend to use trending hashtags to generate more reach for their posts, so you’ll be likely to see just more of the same by following those hashtags. Following more specific hashtags will increase the chances of finding interesting new accounts that actually hold a lot more inspiration than generic influencer accounts.

Identify the notorious unfollowers. The follow/unfollow game gave rise to many third-party tracker apps that allow you to identify the accounts that have unfollowed you (which Instagram itself doesn’t). Comparing the Instagram handles on your ‘new followers’ and ‘new unfollowers’ lists makes it easy to see who they players are – and to debunk their strategy. Also, develop a seventh sense for accounts that only follow you for 24h before they unfollow again. Many of the people who use this tactic are serial players, and will repeatedly follow and unfollow the same accounts. So instead of following back someone right away, just wait a couple of days and see who of your new followers has come to stay because they like your profile, and who is gone again in a jiffy as soon as they’ve reached their goal of getting you as a follower.

Do a preference detox. Reevaluate what type of content you actually want to see on Instagram and do a regular “preference detox” based on this. Go to your search feed (the page that gives you content suggestions based on your activity and “interests”) and identify all the pictures that you feel are just generic and styled to generate clicks. “Tell” Instagram that you don’t want your news feed flooded with this kind of pictures by selecting “see fewer posts like this” in the dropdown menu with the 3 dots in the upper right corner. Watch how your preference feed changes with time.

Read the captions. There are so many people out there who share stories, thoughts and opinions right from their heart, and in reading them you will often find more inspiration than from just looking at their pictures. Generic profiles and people who just want to grow their follower numbers are typically characterized by not saying much in their captions. The focus is on generating clicks, so they will usually fill the blank caption space with random emojis, copied “inspirational” quotes, or bold CTAs to provoke comments and boost engagement. Go for accounts who post genuine and real stories with their pictures. Those are usually the authentic ones, so make an effort to really read what people have to say. Not only does this make you get to know them better, but you will also find yourself inspired by their words in a much deeper way than any Rumi quote could do.

Let the unfollowers know you see them. Directly address the issue with those who do it. I tried this strategy during the #30daysrealnesschallenge: Whenever I saw that someone unfollowed me a mere 24h after following, I wrote them a DM to point out that I’d debunked the intention behind their behavior as a strategy to grow their numbers. I’d tell them how disappointing I found it that they have to resort to such tactics, and that I would report their accounts as spam (which they are if they use manipulative tools to gain followers). By telling them that people actually do notice the bad intention behind their behavior, I hope to raise their awareness for how wrong it is what they do. And of course it’s also quite useful to hint that if they are repeatedly reported for spamming it might get them blocked permanently by Instagram…

Appreciate those who follow. Instead of calling out her unfollowers she decided to show appreciation to all her new followers. In every new post she thanks those people who followed her and sends them good thoughts and warm wishes. What a lovely opposite to the follow/unfollow tactics that so many others employ, don’t you think? Showing gratitude instead of frustration is so powerful and has the ability to instantly transform the social media experience.

Interact with the community of people that cross your path on Instagram journey and show them you genuinely care about them as persons, not as followers. Interact by taking time to reply to the comments you get on your pictures. To every single one, if you can. Visit the profiles of the accounts you follow, not only those that show up in your news feed. Read what they have to say and give them feedback. Don’t just leave a like or a emoji. Really connect and make an effort to get to know them better. This is what the ‘social’ in ‘social media’ should be all about.

And lastly, the most important advice of all:

Connect. Connect with REAL people, in REAL life. If you have never personally met somebody you connected with through Instagram, I highly recommend you do so! You could attend a (yoga) workshop together, visit a concert, go out for coffee with Instagrammers from your hometown, or arrange to meet up with someone from your online community when visiting a new place where you don’t know anybody else. You will be surprised how nice it is to meet up in person, and how much you’ll have to talk about based on what you already know about them through social media. Go beyond just connecting through the screen of your phone. Make your connections real. Who knows what friendships you might find along the way? 😊

My learnings from these 30 days of promoting realness on Instagram were immense. Not only did they change the way I use the platform by motivating me to be more conscious about what I want to see, I am also more focused on what I share myself. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get clear on my actual intention behind my social media appearance and what messages I want to express and share on my account. I stopped posting anything that doesn’t align with it. No empty click bait posts, no self-advertising, nothing that is not real and authentic. My page might be a business page, but that doesn’t mean I have to use it as a brand-building tool. I want it to be a place to share my creativity and passions, always with a piece of myself shining through every picture and post.

The most important gift this challenge gave me are the connections that have formed as a result of this experiment, and the way in which they have allowed me to get to know the people behind the pictures. I love to see the interactions triggered by people sharing authentic pieces of their lives and journeys.

I’m determined to continue sharing and promoting realness and authenticity also beyond the end of this social media experiment. I see it as a transition to what I would personally like to see Instagram become again: a platform to connect and exchange ideas, thoughts and experiences. To share passions with like-minded people, and motivate them to do the same.

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