Cracking the Instagram algorithm for fame

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      Vancouver’s Zach Bulick says it’s a mystery to him how he achieved Instagram fame. Close to 100,000 people follow the graphic designer for the Union Gospel Mission on the photo-sharing social network.

      “I always like to try out the newest thing. I saw some people using Instagram in 2011, and I downloaded it and started playing around with it,” Bulick explains by phone from his home in Mount Pleasant.

      Instagram allows people to take photos with their mobile device and then, with the tap of a finger, crop, add coloured filters, and post the image online. They wait for other users to judge the picture—to “like” the photo. The more likes, the greater the chance the image will make it to the app’s Explore page alongside other top photos.

      “This is kinda embarrassing, but I don’t have an iPhone,” Bulick says. “I have this really crappy flip phone, and I just take my photos with a second-generation iPod Touch, which in the Apple family is probably the worst camera out of any product they have.”

      Yet there’s something about his photos—which show examples of graphic design and illustrate his life in Vancouver—that’s caused them to garner thousands of likes. Bulick soon became a suggested user for new subscribers to follow.

      “After I would post a photo, I would get over 1,000 new followers a day, and that continued for months. And that was just the weirdest thing,” Bulick says. “I’d turn off my notifications on my settings because I couldn’t actually use my iPod during that time, because it just came notification after notification.”

      Exactly how Bulick made the journey from average user to suggested user remains unclear. Instagram has never publicly revealed the algorithm it uses to calculate popularity or what prompts a photo to be featured on the Explore page.

      The Georgia Straight requested an interview with Instagram, but its media-relations team refused. In an email response, a spokesperson with the Facebook-owned app said: “To create a following, we recommend getting really involved in the community.”

      Philippe González says he’s done just that, and he believes he’s cracked the logic behind Instagram’s programming code. González is the editor of a blog called He claims he’s spent countless hours of his life interacting with others on the app.

      “[I believe] it was based on an algorithm that is supposed to be based on the amount of likes you reached in a few seconds [of posting a photo],” theorizes González over the phone from his home in Madrid, Spain.

      “The algorithm was, maybe if you have 80 likes in less than two minutes, you go to the popular page,” González explains.

      González says that in the early days of the app, the feature page showed compelling photos from users. Now, he says, the page features celebrities, self-portraits of overzealous teens, and the occasional cat photo.

      González has learned that some people looking for instant Insta­gram fame strategically wait to post a picture and coordinate their friends to hit Like at the same time, so that the photo will make it onto the Explore page.

      González believes that collecting followers is more about ego than enjoyment of the app. He says the best way to gain followers is to show humanity in posts and share stories.

      The blog has helped create groups of users that meet offline in more than 350 cities around the world. González says some of his happiest times using the app were when he was cultivating relationships with only a few hundred meaningful followers.

      However, he admits there are tricks for those who want to “cheat” at increasing their social-media prowess. For example, for a few hundred dollars, users can buy thousands of followers through ghost accounts.

      “There is the case of a Russian guy that one year ago started to follow eight million people,” González says. “He dedicated months of his life just following people, and he got a follow-back of two million people.…This kind of attitude is not sane, in my opinion.”

      The Washington, D.C.–based Pew Research Center is examining how online life is being shaped by pictures. It has found that 27 percent of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 use Instagram.

      “Pictures are a different social currency than text,” Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet & American Life Project, tells the Straight by phone from his office. “Measurement of popularity, followers, and friends is a standard story about every social tool that comes along.

      “Instagram is a part of that story. As soon as the Like button became a popular option and as soon as pictures became embedded in social media…this is now a new way to keep count,” Rainie says.

      But it’s not just Instagram that’s cultivating subscribers. Rainie points out that smartphones are making it easier to post videos as well. Platforms such as Vine, which allows users to create their own six-second videos, and Tout—a similar service for longer video clips—are propelling this brand of visual social media into the mainstream.

      “There is a way to feel like this is frivolous and a waste of time, and people are too obsessed with their popularity,” Rainie says. “Interacting with other people with whatever tools human beings have is a standard and a fundamental part of who we are. And I would argue there is a balanced way to look at this.

      “Some of this stuff is silly and inappropriate,” Rainie states. “And some of this stuff is more profound than it might appear to be on its surface. It’s the way that we nurture friendship and build community. This is a part of that very long story about what it means to be human.”

      González agrees, saying that as more users sign up for Instagram, it’s important to focus on the people behind the pictures and not just followers.

      “We are millions of millions of people in the world with families and friends, but we feel lonely,” he reflects. “Loneliness is one of the great tragedies in our modern world.

      “Instagram is a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year open area. On Instagram, you will always have someone awake. You can start a communication with them, and it helps you to not feel alone anymore.”