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There are many tricks to playing the Instagram game and promoting your profile, and chief among them is the follow-unfollow method. It’s very simple and the whole strategy is in the name: You follow users on Instagram who you believe might be interested in your profile. If they don’t follow you back after a few days, you unfollow. Generally, this tactic is used en masse: Those using it don’t just follow one or two or five accounts — they follow tons.
The purpose of this trick is to gain Instagram followers and engagement, and it’s almost as old as the app itself. However, an Instagram update this year stifled the hack a bit by new limits put on how many accounts can be followed from a specific IP address. The number of allowed follows is inconsistent from account to account; some have been blocked from doing anything after following multiple accounts, some after one or two. All of this has made following and unfollowing a fraught practice — and it might be a dying one.
According to internal research from analytics tool Hypeauditor, this may make running an Instagram account as a business more expensive, as automated methods of following accounts en masse need to use different IP addresses.
Over 21,000 Instagram accounts were surveyed, and their public following activity from April to June was pulled. The data indicates that 28% of Instagram influence marketers use the follow-unfollow method to help grow their follower bases, which is hindered by Instagram’s new efforts to fight fraud. Hypeauditor’s research shows the limits made to individual IP addresses have caused a decline in the use of the popular follow-unfollow method by as much as 84% within the first month of the update.
The problem is not that the follow-unfollow method doesn’t work. It works exceptionally well. Agorapule’s Social Media Lab published a study in 2018 that claimed the follow-unfollow method is positively correlated with increases in link clicks, retweets, likes, and replies. Of course, that was before the changes Instagram issued on limiting IP addresses’ capabilities, which aren’t limited to just how many accounts they can follow: Instagram is also (somewhat arbitrarily, as previously mentioned) limiting other activity. Ampfluence, an account management tool for influencers, has reported that some users are being blocked from following other users after following 10 accounts and others after one. Some are blocked from replying to comments on posts too quickly and reposting too many photos to Stories. What’s more, how long these blocks last is also random; some users report them lasting for a day, others have to reach out to customer service to reverse them.
So whether manual or automated, using the follow-unfollow method (which often includes liking photos en masse and commenting on lots of photos) to grow an online audience might not be as tried and true as it once was.
It shouldn’t have to be said that many accounts using follow-unfollow are employing bots to do so, and spamming users into oblivion. Blocking this sort of activity is in good faith, but unfortunately Instagram’s seemingly arbitrary methods for combatting the dark side of follow-unfollow also hurt genuine user activity: People who just really love (perhaps obsessively love) Instagram might look like spammers to Instagram if they’re following lots of accounts and liking and commenting on lots of photos.
And if influencers are manually being highly active in order to grow their communities and followings, being hampered by the platform is hardly in Instagram’s best interest.
Brooke Sjoberg is an editorial intern for the Daily Dot studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the Daily Texan's Life and Arts Editor and an editorial intern for Texas Connect magazine.