If you search through Instagram photos of the platform’s younger demographic, you’ll notice a lot of them have something in common: a love of hashtags.
Their photos are riddled with them. #Selfie #Pretty #Sunset #Friday. The list goes on and on.
It isn’t just one or two hashtags: The photos are usually uploaded with 15 to 20 hashtag accompaniments at a time, in an attempt to be more visible on Instagram. The more visable and searchable you are, the more likely you are to pick up a new follower or more likes.
That gave me an idea.
I decided I wanted to see if I could increase my modest Instagram following by doing what these kids were doing: Using hashtags to make their photos available for other users to see.
After studying most of the photos I had seen on Instagram, I downloaded an app called Tags For Likes, which basically creates various blocks of themed hashtags that you can copy and paste into an Instagram photo you want to publish.
Hashtags are clickable; if you click one it will bring you to all of the photos tagged with the same word. Using hashtags is a way to up your SEO game and make yourself more available to be followed by other users.
It seems to be very popular with teenagers and the younger demographic Instagram appeals to.
I started to post four to five photos a day with hashtags. Most of the time, I had the hashtags match the photos I was posting. Sometimes I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure it mattered.
I saw photos get more likes than usual, but it was at the cost of my friends being mean to me. Note that most of the compliments are 100% sarcastic.
Using Tags For Likes wasn’t helping me make more friends on Instagram or keep the ones I already had. Business Insider’s managing editor, Jessica Leibman, commented “#Fired” on one of my over-tagged photos, so it wasn’t helping me keep my job either.
Even my most desperate attempt to get followers with the following post only helped me grab a couple; and my friends were ready to disown me.
I started the experiment at 819 followers, and while I had gotten 12 “x has followed you” notifications over the course of a few days, I only had 820 followers by the start of the weekend. People were unfollowing me, because this was a terribly annoying experiment.
After just a few days of using Tags For Likes, I came up with my pros and cons.
Pros of using Tags For Likes: If your photos are good and your hashtags are relevant, you might see a spike in the number of likes you get compared to posting the same photo with no hashtags. Which makes sense, because hashtags make a photo searchable.
Cons: It’s so annoying, egregious, desperate-looking, and unnecessary. Might as well post a picture holding a sign that says “validate me.”
(Yes, that’s why we all use social media, but the mature thing to do is to pretend otherwise.)
Still determined, I scanned the platform for ideas on how to ramp up my following. Soon, I realised most of the nonfamous younger kids on Instagram who posted nothing but spam (like the photo above) had thousands of followers, and most weren’t following as many back.
I needed to figure out what they were doing.
The Cool Ratio
As I waited for a bus last Friday night, a 12-year-old named Josh struck up a conversation with me about “our generation” (I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were two different generations). Nevertheless, Josh was a talkative sixth-grader heading home from school and wanted to know what I was Instagramming.
I had just taken a picture of the #sunset and I was getting ready to post it with the following hashtag block:
#sunset #sunrise #sun #TagsForLikes #TFLers #pretty #beautiful #red #orange #pink #sky #skyporn #cloudporn #nature #clouds #horizon #photooftheday #instagood #gorgeous #warm #view #night #morning #silhouette #instasky #all_sunsets
I told him I was working on a story about teenagers and Instagram. He asked me if I wanted advice, and before I could ask if Joe Weisenthal had planted him at this bus stop, he wanted to know about my cool ratio.
The cool ratio, according to Josh, is when you take the number of people that follow you and you divide it by the number of people you’re following.
He told me he was following 46 people but he had 1,400 followers.
“So my ratio is pretty cool,” he explained.
I don’t really know if his maths formula adds up, but I understood the point: to have way more followers than people you’re following.
For Teens, It’s A Numbers Game
It’s a pure numbers game. The point is to get as many followers as you can and follow as few as possible. More followers = more popular. They don’t care who those people are. It’s quantity over quality … every single time.
Here’s how it works (and I tried it myself):
You search through spammy #hashtags on Instagram like #followforfollow, which means, I’ll follow you if you follow me.
There are millions of photos tagged with #followforfollow.
You pick a few photos and quickly follow every person who liked one of the posts. Click, click, click, click.
It’s also good to change your bio and include something like “I follow back,” just in case people are checking out your credibility. (I don’t know, all the kids were doing it, so I changed mine too.)
Then, because you’ve just followed 40 new people with a #followforfollow objective, you start to get notifications that the people you just followed are following you. Cool! Exciting! You’re very popular and your follower count is rising quickly.
Now this is where the fun begins (using a loose definition of “fun”).
After people start following you, you unfollow them. They won’t get a notification that you’ve unfollowed or anything. They will only know if they’re paying as much attention to it as you are. Chances are most aren’t.
It starts to feel like a game, and it had very little to do with Tags for Likes or even good photography.
Unlike Twitter — where you’re more aware of your follower count, who is following you, and when they stop following you — Instagram is a very secluded platform. You can’t do much but post photos and click through hashtags and follow and unfollow people. It’s not as personal, the relationship building potential is limited, and so teenagers treat it like a contest.
Highest score, aka the cool ratio, wins.
We All Define ‘Cool’ Differently And Instagram Lets Us Do That
I have to admit, it was slightly exhilarating to get 20 to 25 new followers in a half hour. But then when I realised I had spent 30 minutes exhausting myself by following and unfollowing strangers, checking my follower count, etc., the novelty of a high score began to wear off.
The point of Instagram for the 20- and 30-something crowd is to post thoughtfully photographed photos of the perfectly filtered lives we want everyone else to believe we’re living. Our clout comes in the form of feeling like we are living up to a certain standard we’ve created for ourselves and one another. Our validation comes when certain people — lovers, ex-lovers, friends — notice what we’ve posted.
For a young kid, clout comes in the form of a high number which makes you look like you’re really important. It’s a more innocent and more straight forward way about getting the attention they’re craving. There is no subconscious, hidden need to be validated every time a different photo goes up, because regardless of the nature of the content, if a kid has 3,000 followers and only follows 20 people back, they consider themselves to be Instagram-famous and so do their friends.
For the older crowd, we’re never sure who really takes home the crowd at the end of the day. Is it the person with the beautiful wedding, the beautiful vacation home, the beautiful engagement ring? Or is it the person who doesn’t have an Instagram account at all.
With kids, it’s as simple as a number, and no matter what…the biggest number wins.