I tried (and failed) to become an Instagram guru

I spent a month trying to get 100,000 followers. I didn't get there.

Sponsored Links

(Original) Philip Palermo / (Edit) Mat Smith
(Original) Philip Palermo / (Edit) Mat Smith

The life of a rock star social media celebrity may not be as worthwhile as building hospitals in war zones, but it looks a hell of a lot more fun. Imagine all of those trips behind the red velvet rope to a world where beautiful people like and respect you as you effortlessly acquire wealth and influence. Alas, it's not as simple as shoving your face on Instagram and waiting for the cash to roll in -- if you want to quaff champagne with the Jenners and Swifts, you'll need to put in plenty of effort.

So is it possible for any old schmo, like myself, lacking any sort of talent but plenty of enthusiasm, armed with little more than a smartphone, a DSLR and Photoshop, to become Insta-famous? All I'd need is an instruction manual to get me on my way and the time and space to build up my 'celebrity' status. Thankfully, there's a whole firmament of social media gurus, influencers and shamans willing to share their secrets to accruing a monster following. In fact, if you were to sift through all of their words of wisdom, who knows, maybe you could write the definitive social media bible.

Now, I'm not the first schlubby journalist to attempt to break into the upper echelon of D-list web celebrity. Hell, there are plenty of better-prepared and better-looking folks who've tried this without much success. Take Bloomberg's Max Chafkin, who even employed the social agency Socialyte to aid his quest toward Instagram stardom. My ascent to the social media stratosphere won't be aided by anyone because I've been tasked with doing this the hard way.

The rules are pretty simple: Set up an Instagram account and use whatever (legitimate) means to push my following as high as possible. I figure that, equipped with the knowledge that all of those star gurus can offer, it'll take me less than a month before I'm packing 100,000 followers. Along the way, I'll scour every how-to, every online guide, and learn from the master himself, Vaynerchuk, and it'll be a piece of cake.

Turn on browser notifications to receive breaking news alerts from Engadget
You can disable notifications at any time in your settings menu.
Not now

Rule Number One: Use Hashtags

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and so does my quest to become a beloved Instagram influencer. I set up an entirely blank account -- serenecoops -- and wait for an army of fans to descend upon me.

It doesn't happen.

The first lesson I've learned is that building a following on Instagram can't be done passively, and it doesn't happen overnight. I'm pretty sore about this fact, since I'm very obviously an as-yet-unheralded genius and it's about damn time that I started getting some appreciation. Second, I should probably start posting some images to my feed to remind the internet that it should be hungry for what I give it. For my first submission, I share a picture of my face, explaining who I am, what I want to achieve, and get precisely zero likes for it. Bastards.

But I forgot to add any hashtags to my post, and as social media guru Garry Vaynerchuk would say, "Instagram's about hashtags." The advertising tycoon got his big break selling wine on social media and now has a reported worth somewhere north of $160 million. "Do not post anything on Instagram without your first comment being 15 to 20 hashtags," the businessman says in his widely circulated tutorials.

For my next post, I liberally spray hashtags into the comments in the hope of garnering some love. And, amazingly, it works -- with three people double tapping my shot of some books in quick succession. By the end of that day, six people (okay, five and myself) have liked the image, although no one felt motivated to click follow as a consequence.

A post shared by Dan Cooper (@serenecoops) on Nov 1, 2017 at 5:09am PDT

Instagrammers also need to have some sort of thing, especially if you're not a famous person already. You need to build a narrative whereby you become known for one or two things that people can come to you for. I figured that while technology would be an easy win, I didn't want my now-imminent Instagram fame to impinge upon my job. Not only are there plenty of folks doing that brilliantly already, I also didn't want to spend even more time taking pictures of smart watches.

But what else am I qualified to talk about, if not technology? I've got a small hankering for fashion, even if my build means that my clothes are more about masking my own inadequacies. I like watches but wondered if there'd be enough of an audience there for me to talk about them incessantly. I like reading, do DIY and perform comedy on the weekends, but none of those seemed like good enough causes either. Not to mention that anything adult or too naughty would be flagged by Instagram's highly-prudish filtering.

Rule Number Two: Leverage Fear

One of the trends I keep coming back to on Vaynerchuk's own account are his "inspirational" memes, delivered on a near-daily basis. The entrepreneur seems to specialize in images that end with some variation on the phrase "You've already lost." He also uses pictures of himself that wouldn't look out of place in a Nike catalog, overlaid with quasi-meaningful phrases.

A post shared by Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk (@garyvee) on Oct 24, 2017 at 3:10pm PDT

A post shared by Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk (@garyvee) on Oct 22, 2017 at 7:31am PDT

One thing that I've spotted, however, is that they all seem to induce in me some sort of existential panic as I'm constantly being told to work harder. I should be maximizing my time, stop listening, start doing shit. I should stop caring about other people, but also care too much about everything. I should stop worrying about my own feelings but also be advised that my own fear of failure is holding me back from greatness. After a five-minute stroll through his feed, I'm gripped by a number of mid-life crises all at once.

A post shared by Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk (@garyvee) on Oct 3, 2017 at 12:32pm PDT

A post shared by Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk (@garyvee) on Sep 6, 2017 at 4:16am PDT

The key lesson is that fear is a great selling tool, and if used correctly, can get people to pay attention to your Instagram. The trick is to leverage that subtle anxiety that, I'm sure many of us have, we're frittering away our time here on Earth. Deep down, I know I'm already giving one hundred percent working in a full-time job, raising a child and trying to renovate a house by myself. That's not enough, however, and I should also be working on my own startup, reading a book a week, training for an ultramarathon and making enough money to buy my own sports team.

A post shared by Dan Cooper (@serenecoops) on Nov 20, 2017 at 6:25am PST

I set to work, finding pictures of myself doing things that I can overlay with useful phrases and lots of cool symbols. Another thing I learn, thanks to Fast Company, is that Instagram's most popular color is blue, so all of my images are tinted with the hue in Photoshop, and then I use the Clarendon filter to double up on the amount of blue on show in each image. And, actually, this combination of factors does prove effective, in its own weird way, often garnering me five or six likes within minutes of publishing.

A post shared by Dan Cooper (@serenecoops) on Nov 17, 2017 at 7:21am PST

Rule Number Three: Maintain your energy

I'm reminded of Jessica Vasquez, a social media celebrity going by the name JessiSmiles. She quit the much-loved six-second comedy network Vine after finding the pressure to produce content too much. "You can say that it's six seconds, but six seconds -- putting it out there in front of millions of people to tell you what they think about it is hard." I'm feeling the same, putting all of this effort to craft an image and then email it to my phone so that it can be uploaded via Instagram's mobile app. In fact, the user interface itself forces everything to be slower than it could otherwise be done, be it adding comments with hashtags and editing images. It helps sap my already-ailing momentum.

On that subject, posting a list of hashtags in your comments is a nightmare because there are several opaque rules that enables Instagram to block your postings. After preparing a list of hashtags that I could paste in on the tail of every image, it would frequently be blocked, much to my dismay. All of this ensured that I began missing days, feeling lethargic and generally wanting to avoid spending time on Instagram.

But my efforts were, at least, noticed by David*, a social media marketer who got in touch to offer me his skills. David is a "social media marketer," who promises to essentially take the legwork out of building a following by doing it all for you. "You've got a LONG way to go," wrote David in an Instagram direct message, "it will pretty much be impossible to get there without any marketing help."

David's job is to log into his client's Instagram accounts and perform "outward engagement," industry speak for liking, commenting and following targeted users. These users are identified through niche influencers, locations and other variables, that are then intended to juice your own attention. The more attention you give, and the more you receive, the more prominent you're expected to become. Depending on how much cash you hand over each month, you can also get Dave to slide into other people's DMs on your behalf.

And, to be fair, David does look like he's at least capable of starting me on the ladder, having accrued 14,500 followers on his own account. He shares his other clients' profiles with me that all have similar counts -- and he promises to get around 1,000 new followers each month. Prices start from $49 a month and run all the way up to $199 if you want everything, including a weekly analytics call.

Unfortunately, my budget remains zero, so I'll never know if David could work his magic on my account, but the recognition does at least reinvigorate me. If I'm already worthy of attention from social media promoters, perhaps this is all something worth persisting with.

* Names have been changed.

Rule Number Four: Engage

There's something missing from my Instagram game, and that's the fact that I don't use the service to interact with others. I'm one of these folks who gets itchy about sending a Facebook friend request to people, even if I've known them for years. Consequently, the idea of copying Vaynerchuk's exhortations to slide into everyone's DMs in the hope of becoming a better marketer gives me hives.

But, as hard as it is, I begin doing it, responding in kind to every comment that pops up on my images and trying to reach out to others. The process is slow, mostly because I generally treat online interactions as meaningful, rather than simply process of shooting platitudes at everyone in my digital vicinity. I offer some very generic comments on the things that people have added and, again, see my likes spike. It seems that the more effort you put in, the more successful your account can be.

A post shared by Dan Cooper (@serenecoops) on Nov 21, 2017 at 6:42am PST

And then it hit me that, much like LinkedIn, this part of Instagram has become a place where everyone's just hustling each other, all of the time. All of the comments that I was doling out, and received, were simply bland platitudes that neither of us believed in. Motion and action were being carried out not for the sake of forming human relationships, but to please Instagram's all-powerful algorithms. The more the algorithm likes us, the thinking goes, the more people will be exposed to my images, and the more they will like me.

The end result is a culture of performative living, where you exist online not to be authentic, but simply to grease the internet's wheels. It's the polar opposite of something like Vine, which felt far more human, and humane, and suffered as a consequence. Vine, which made sense for interludes of video art and super brief comedy sketches, was the sort of place you enjoyed visiting, and contributing to. By comparison, Instagram is a place where you go to find companionship and wind up feeling more isolated than before. It's no surprise that the app's one of the biggest sources of depression for teenagers.

A post shared by Dan Cooper (@serenecoops) on Nov 23, 2017 at 7:41am PST

I've given up trying now, and I don't think that the hallowed world of earning $100,000 per promotional image is within my grasp. I won't be receiving a free outfit from my favorite tailors or get invited to New York's hottest new nightclub. After a month of work to try and cultivate my image into that of a hot young influencer taking the Instagram world by storm, I managed to accrue a total of 18 followers, although that number is now falling by the day.

  • Total Posts: 20
  • Total Follows: 18
  • Total Likes: 231
  • Number of Protein Powder retailers that followed me: 2
  • Digital Marketers that followed me: 6
  • Churches: 1
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission. All prices are correct at the time of publishing.
View All Comments
I tried (and failed) to become an Instagram guru