Instagram: We’re All Robots Now

Technology and automation has brought us a lot of wonderful things: cheaper cars, digital spreadsheets, and the junk filter on your email. They’ve also brought us something that no one anywhere really enjoys: bots. The two most common bots found on the internet are sex bots and advertisement bots. Generally they’ll make remarks that are in the vein of their genre  (either trying to act sexy or trying to sell you something in a not so subtle way).

The rise of Instagram (and Twitter) and publicly available profiles has led to a new type of bot and bot service which could be best described as a branding tool. It allows a user to be everywhere at once without having to actually pick up their phones.

The How

The good news is that robots aren’t sentient. Instagram provides software developers with a document called an API. It’s a list of endpoints that a user can call to that will get/send certain information without using the Instagram.com interface. With a single line of code I can like your photo, follow a user, or get a list of photos with certain hashtags on them (among a dozen other activities).

The makers of bots use these endpoints to develop programs that can run 24/7 with the help of access to the internet. They can make bots that follow people, like photos, comment on things, without ever actually looking at the pictures that they’re liking/commenting/following. If the bot-maker is feeling entrepreneurial they’ll make a business out of it in one of two ways:

  1. Selling people the ability to be ‘present’ on the internet even when they actually aren’t.  The Instagram API allows a third party to “like” up to 60 photos an hour, which could mean liking 1,440 photos without ever lifting  a finger (or commenting, or following, etc.).
  2. Selling people likes that are generated from bot accounts which exist solely to “like” content or follow people and artificially inflate the ego of the person using this technique.

Anyone with $10 and an internet connection can buy these services, there’s no minimum follower requirement, no popularity threshold. Literally anyone with an Instagram account and a healthy dose of trust in the internet.

The Bad and the Ugly

Instagram is not pro-automated likes. This is one of the reasons why there’s a limit on how many interactions/hour can be had for any given service.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-1-39-03-pm
Sandbox is a “demo” mode and Live is a website that has Instagram’s approval

In fact, Instagram has software that will monitor your activity and if it thinks you’re using a bot it will deactivate your account. That on its own is a little bit terrifying. Instagram wants people to use these powers for good, not for evil.

People make websites using these free endpoints that the less tech-savvy will pay for to get whatever they want out of it. Unless the owners of the website owns a thousand Instagram accounts, there’s no way they can guarantee you will get a thousand followers.  Do you really want 1000 likes on your photo if they’re from bots? Or other people who are paying for likes as well?

Additionally, just because you can be everywhere at once doesn’t mean you should be. Not all services were created equal. They may tip off the Instagram monitor that you’re using a bot, they may make you seem incredibly disingenuous, and they may make you seem less than human.

The Good

In certain small doses, having a bot on your side can be a good thing. When I started taking Instagram seriously (which is still a phrase that makes me giggle) I found myself obsessing in my free time. I would spend every spare five minutes scrolling through hashtag lists, liking photos that I thought were interesting. I loved that there was that immediate gratification of liking 20 photos and refreshing my page to see that those people had liked mine back. It also made me feel like I was some kind of drug addict because I was constantly reaching for my phone, anxious to see who had liked my posts.

I ultimately chose to use a bot so my boyfriend would stop giving my dirty looks every time I picked up my phone when he was around, and I think it was one of the best decisions ever (even though he made fun of me for it). The software I chose offers options to follow, comment, and like content, but I held (and still hold) strongly to the belief that having a bot follow or comment on photos is a dirty trick for a user who just genuinely wants to share their posts. The bot gives me the option to choose whatever hashtags I want to target, likes certain photos automatically, and shows me what “I’ve” liked. I go through once a day and look at the photos that it’s been through and most of the time I do really enjoy them, it’s kind of like having a personally curated feed of stranger’s photos.

One of the perks of using a bot (judiciously) is that you get exposed to people who you might not otherwise be involved with. I’m not up at 3am all that often, but when I wake up at 6am I can see likes from people who were up at 3am posting things and I can go explore their profiles.

That was the right decision for me, and it gives me the freedom to keep my feed full of people whose photos I actually want to see and also the freedom to go to dinner and put my phone away. It might not be the right decision for you.

You should ask yourself a few questions before you look into automating likes, comments, and follows:

  • What’s your motivation? Is it purely for attention?
  • Do you care if the feedback you receive is genuine?
  • Will you ever get your money back in a tangible form (i.e. will it sell more products, get you more business)?
  • Can you explain this to one of your parents (or someone over 50) and convince them it’s a reasonable idea?

Have you used a bot? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Do you feel betrayed every time you get an “applause” emoticon in your comment section? Let’s talk about it.

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