I found out something curious today.
I was cleaning up my LinkedIn profile and relooking into my Instagram account – basically doing some social media housekeeping that I had not had time nor motivation to do, for years – when I realised that in my six years of absence from Instagram, someone had been using my account as a phantom follower to other Instagram accounts! *jeng jeng jeng*
Let’s establish some basic background. I started using Instagram around 2010, for about two years, mainly for its filter functions, which resulted in a lot of random photos in my profile which I applied the filters on. Earlier on I had already set the profile up as private because of how I was using it (i.e. as a quick photo editing tool and not a sharing platform). Around 2012, around when I was finishing up my PhD, I stopped using the app. Possibly because Facebook had acquired Instagram, or maybe I got tired of it, I don’t remember.
Today I revisited my profile and reset the password because I had forgotten it. I started looking through the pictures, of which I had 270 – a number which I was genuinely surprised by, as I thought I had twenty pictures tops. But then I noticed something funny. I had the grand total of one follower, but over 300 profiles that I was following. My feed was full of unfamiliar profiles, some of them in Arabic, some in Russian, some in Spanish.
And then it dawned on me that quite possibly my account had somehow been taken over – hacked? – and all these profiles that I was following probably bought their likes. And that I now have a list of over 300 profiles which are like-buyers and fraudster influencers.
I clicked randomly through the list, and these are what I found:
- Lots of legitimately cute chicks. There’s even a really beautiful female body builder in there with an intimidating silhouette. A Korean singer/song-writer. Many different personalities – Chinese, Japanese, Spanish-speaking, tudung-wearing, globe-trotting… but ultimately quite boring profiles. If you’ve seen one selfie, you’ve seen them all.
- There are also guys of course. There’s a guy in there who collects expensive branded bags. An Italian actor/producer who has 1.5mil likes. An old dude who seems to be living the life, photographed with many expensive cars and at many travel destinations. A young dude who has many artistic shots of himself (probably can’t afford cars and trips). Some American guy who has a PhD, is a producer, a pilot, and works in law enforcement – if he didn’t buy my like I might have trusted his long list of achievements a little more.
- Businesses, as well. Someone who sells Legos in Indonesia. A slimming/wellness service provider from the Philippines which was apparently founded by a former beauty queen (I arrived at their website and dug deeper). An Australian shopping centre showing pictures of all their vendors. A bank from India. An art gallery from somewhere that speaks Arabic, which actually looks like a profile that I wouldn’t mind following – one of its pictures are of a group of women with headscarves sitting together, drawing.
- Most of these accounts have an upwards of 10,000 likes. The highest that I’ve seen so far is 3.9 million likes, and the lowest at 1600+ likes. Wonder how much of that is actually real.
- There are profiles which seem to have quite a lot of actual engagement, like comments. But of course many are not very engaging, so they look quite obviously fake, with the disproportionate like/comment ratio. A small number (let’s say 10%) of these profiles are verified accounts.
- These people put real effort into their content (of course they do), resulting in a really long list of insta stories that I do not have the time nor energy to go through. However I saw at least one profile which has only 31 posts, basically a collection of some random videos and pictures that he finds funny, with no perceivable profit motive or “influencer ego” that I can see… yet he has 14k likes and obviously cared enough about likes to buy mine. I am confused.
For some reason Instagram doesn’t let me open too many profiles/tabs at the same time (gives me errors) and I found myself having to refresh some pages repeatedly to get through. So I got tired of doing that and stopped my profile surfing.
What are the takeaways from this experience? On the digital security front, it is fortunate that my privacy settings are still set as private. That had not changed even though the hackers would have had ample opportunity to change it, or to hijack my account completely. I have also not observed any evidence of myself doing much else besides following profiles that I don’t know. I’m guessing (and hoping) that with my changing of the password, all this hanky panky will stop. I’m still maintaining this private account because I don’t want to lose the pictures inside, but I have built an active one linked to a new email account to post my sketches and drawings (it’s @juneysketches). I’ve also been using KeePass for managing my passwords nowadays, so the new passwords will be much harder to crack.
The other thought that I have is a little harder to pin down. I am fascinated, if a little repulsed, by the idea of being so desperate for likes that one has to buy them. This brings me back to a book that I read last year, I think it was the one by Douglas Rushkoff that talks about how all the value has been extracted out of the economy and people turn to virtual currency such as “likes”, which can then be converted back to real money through their influencer status. I suppose money begets money? If you invest real money in virtual likes, you may get the returns in real money as well. But then, these are the people who actually understand the rules of the game and are playing to win.
What about those who are actually relying on likes as a status symbol? Competing with their peers on virtual popularity, at the same time knowing that their own follower base is actually hollow and meaningless? How many layers of sad is that? So many layers. :(((
In any case, I’m constantly reviewing my stance on social media. From being pretty careless about it to completely adverse, I have traversed the entire spectrum and am currently trying to strike a balance on having some sort of presence but curating and sharing mindfully. I think that the Indieweb concept is pretty good – basically you have all your content on your own website and syndicate them out to the platforms, so that you always own your content, and interactions on the SNSs come back to your website so that you don’t lose anything. The implementation is in the pipeline but I need to wait till Leo helps me to revamp this website to be compatible with Indieweb.
For the time being, it seems to be a matter of getting used to connecting with people online again, and enjoying the process of writing and drawing without being distracted by social media. A battle against the attention economy at large. Maybe it’s a muscle that one has to flex. Better start earlier than later.
Unrelated, one day later, when I pressed publish: Just found out that GE is now set on 9th May. Wednesday. ARGH fuck this shit.