Instagram as a photo and video editing, sharing and social networking platforms relationship has developed and altered at an exponential rate. This changing relationship can be partially attributed to ‘the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences.’ Convergence between Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr and the development of blogging capabilities exemplifies this migratory audience relationship. These interactions have altered the site from more than a mere photo uploading trajectory, into a medium used to gain and maintain a social presence and allowing the potential to gain notoriety online. Now more than ever, it is possible to build a social media empire through the empowerment, access and participation of the individual online. This pursuit of quasi-celebrity status with an online Instagram presence, has uncovered audience engagement as resembling herd culture. Herd culture is evident through the value placed on gaining an Instagram following, irrespective of the value of the content shared. The importance of an Instagram following has allowed for the ‘buying of likes and followers’ culture to flourish. This poses the question, what is the value of photographic content on a site where the primary aim is to appear popular.
Within excess of two hundred million users worldwide and twenty billion photos uploaded, Instagram has seen a vast amount of content shared. It is no surprise an effective Instagram presence has become a commodity, through the purchasing an online following or ‘likes’, ultimately translating into popularity. Sites such as ‘Buzzoid’ charge as little as three dollars for a hundred Insatgram followers, where dormant or fictitious accounts follow or like content. ‘It’s tempting to use objective measures like these [follows and likes, to determine popularity] because they’re verifiable, quantitative and logical.’ Herd culture can be attributed to the idea of collective intelligence, describing a situation where an individual adopts ideologies, behaviors or engages in certain hegemonic actions due to influence of peers or to join in a popular movement with other people in society. A reason for this practice upon Instagram can be conceptualised as a representation of the ‘Bass Diffusion model, [which] describes how the popularity of something in proportion to current popularity among those people who have yet to adopt (or copy) it. As the thing becomes more popular, there are fewer potential new adopters and the trend fades again’.  This means that upon Instagram, the audience are more likely to follow content which appears popular within society and the audience recognises an opportunity to emulate, to further their own popularity. Herd culture in practice, is a part of the decision making process when determining whether to engage with another’s online content. ‘When an individual observes the behavior of another person and based on that observation, concludes something about the value and practicality of the behavior.’ Thus, it can be held that Insatgram users unconsciously determine the value of content shared, by the value others place upon something through likes and follows, a representation of users being ‘sheep’ attributing to herd culture. This culture can not be fully understood until two profiles, one with pre-purchased followers and another with a purely organic following, with identical content are created and their reception compared, with the rate of engagement.
Left: Cecilia Wilterson (@CeciliaWilter) 1000 Insatgram followers purchased
Right: Cecilia Wilter (@WilterCecilia) No followers purchased.
‘“The medium is the message”, tells us that noticing change is our societal and cultural ground conditions indicates the presence of a new message, that is, the effects of a new medium…if we discover the new medium brings along effects that might be detrimental to our society or culture.’ The medium message here, is the link between the follow existing follow count and how this perceived validity as a content sharer, helps gain an organic following. As exhibited above, the follow count and perceived importance of a profile and shared content is both an inextricable, yet a misguided practice. With the purchased following, the amount of likes, follows and general engagement upon the profile far outweighs the profile displaying the same content uploaded at the same hour with near identical hash-tags. This is a tangible representation of herd culture prevalence and importance placed on a popular social presence irrespective of the content shared. The overrepresentation within the ‘beauty blogger’ online industry and saturation of the novice and professional style bloggers on Instagram has brought about a competitive culture. No longer is it exclusive to the trained professional who flouts their skill, as now everyone has the ability to claim credibility in these fields respectively. The differencing factor between a successful and unsuccessful business model upon Instagram, is the amount of coverage the individual receives. This over-representation within trades such as beauty bloggers, stylists, fashion designers, interior designers, etc. has made it difficult for small bloggers to gain status without engaging in the taboo of un-organically sourcing followers. This difficulty is illustrated in influential accounts suspected caught buying dormant bot followers or purchasing likes. Blogger of ‘Pink Peonies’, Rachel Parcell, who was accused of purchasing both likes and follows simultaneously to gain a stronger following. This blogger makes in excess of a million dollars annually and raised eyebrows when her Facebook following was less than fifty thousand and her Instagram following was almost reached two hundred thousand strong. Parcell was accused by the ‘GOMI’ (Get off my Internet) group, through the production of ‘a series of screenshots throughout last night that shows the followers increasing rapidly. It seems they are showing up at a rate of about 30-40 an hour.’ Supplementary to this, analysis of the spam upon Parcell’s account highlights that the blogger is likely to have also purchased likes upon an image, considering the disproportionate likes received in comparison to a sequence before and her follower count.
This deceptive practice was addressed by an unidentified Los Angeles blogger who gained over forty thousand organic followers by purchasing five thousand over a two-year period. She argued when questioned by potential partnering brands, ‘ I don’t think there was anything wrong with getting a little help in the beginning…sometimes that initial few thousand is what helps kick-start your career…the move was not deceptive because her actual Instagram fan base…is authentic and what actually matters to her partner brands.’ These bloggers are engaging in questionable ethical practices when they seeks sponsorship or to engage in brand management due to their online popularity. “When a company gives a blogger $50,000 to be a brand spokes-blogger of for a product placement under the impression that are reaching 250000 fans, they are being defrauded 50% of those fans don’t exist. If that sort of practice came to light in the real world, people would probably get sued, but since it’s blogland, they seem to get away with anything.” This can be detrimental to brand management as the influence and social media outreach is partially falsified and not a true representation of an organic and engaged audience. Therefore, companies are using perceived quasi-stars as a trajectory for their product, which is in fact being marketed to bots. This has become a constant issue for brands and has led to many controversial name-droppings with sponsorship. Just like any other sponsorship within the sporting, academic or fashion industries, where there is deceptive conduct which does not align to the ideologies of the company, there is the possibility of being dropped, found out and ultimately disgruntling the organic following and losing near all notoriety. Ultimately, if caught, the Instagram user’s climb to fame will be short lived, as they will be distrusted. This is a high price to pay for what can be seen as a superficial benefit of a number on your profile. However, herd culture and the known benefits a large follower count is still seem as a valuable practice, considering individuals purchase follows and likes irrespective of the known threat. The threat of being caught and publicly shamed does not in the eyes of users, outweigh the benefits of gaining attention for one’s profile and subsequent content.
The illusion of popularity has transitioned into a highly valued attribute upon Instagram. The importance of images uploaded in the eyes of the audience is determined on the reception of previous audiences through either, liking, following or ignoring the content. Instagram is now a marketing space where companies, products and an individual’s lifestyle are presented for interaction online. This is a representation of herd culture and the desire for audiences to fit in and understand the content and momentum needed for their own profile to gain equal online notoriety. Therefore, Instagram is no longer a source for exclusively sharing original or interesting content, instead it is a platform used to determine the outreach of an online presence and examine trends, such as herd culture.
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