The Instagram changes keep on rolling in, and the latest round has ruffled a few feathers online.
I try to hang back on commenting too soon on these things because there’s always a lot of panic and rumour. On this occasion, it’s also not something I’ve experienced personally, or any of my clients or students have reported experiencing, which makes it harder to wade in. So I’ve hung back a little & tried to suss things out.
Therefore, the following is based partly on reading (links at the bottom), and partly on conjecture based on my weirdly obsessive Insta insight.
Years ago I ran an internet forum with friends. We had one member join to troll everyone with vile, far-right politics, and he was persistent, bullying and cruel. After trying various techniques to get rid of him, we hit upon the relatively new concept of a shadowban.
Unlike under a standard ban from a site or forum, a shadowbanned user sees nothing unusual. They can log in as usual, respond to posts. What’s different is, nobody else can see them. They’re shouting – or posting – into the abyss.
It’s cruel and hilarious – and it’s not quite what’s happening on Instagram.
People are calling what’s happening a shadowban because it functions superficially similarly. Some users – and we’ll look at the who & why in a minute – find their engagement suddenly plummets. Everything looks to be as normal from their end, so it’s hard to figure out why – until they log out, or check for their posts from an account that doesn’t follow them. Then they see that their post is not showing in any of the hashtag grids that they have posted with. They’re essentially invisible.
The significance of hashtags
I’ve talked before about why hashtags are an essential tool for getting your images seen on Instagram. Without them you’re essentially posting as private, to only your followers. So suddenly being removed from all hashtag visibility absolutely would account for a big drop in engagement, and is worrying indeed.
But why would this happen?
It’s been suggested that certain behaviours might make a user vulnerable to a ‘shadowban’. Remember that any process like this is going to be entirely automated, given the sheer volume of accounts using Instagram every hour – so there’s going to be a big margin for error.
Essentially it’s the same bad practice I always advise against in my podcast and courses – which may go some way to explaining why none of my clients have reported it.
- Repeatedly using the same hashtags, every day
- Using bots or automated likes
- Follow-to-unfollow practice, either via automation or manually
- Repeatedly leaving low value, unoriginal comments
- Behaving in any inauthentic or system-gaming way
To remove a ‘shadowban’ then, a user needs to refrain from these activities. Reports suggest bans can lift in a couple of days, and that taking a break from posting at all might be beneficial if you think you’re affected. However…
I’m not convinced there is a punishment-and-reward system at play. Instead, I suspect they’ve simply started to do what I’ve been expecting for some time now, and introduced an algorithm for the hashtag pages.
When Instagram removed our chronological home feeds, they took away the ability to see content by recency, and instead took control of what we see and when. There are obvious benefits for them as a business in doing this – the ability to keep users engaged, direct them to trends or content that they want to promote, and most of all, the advertising potential.
There are already algorithms that determine how we see our Home feeds, our Explore pages and Search results, and these are entirely individual. What I see will not be the same as what you, or anyone else sees when they log into the app. They are based on your own individual activity.
The one place that was the exception to this was the hashtag pages. Search for a tag, and you could see any posts in chronological order, with most recent showing first. It allowed people to continue to browse by recency instead of using the pathways IG had selected.
A few months back, the algorithm method was extended to the top hashtag grid – you know those nine posts at the top of any hashtag you search for? Those stopped being universal – now they’re the top posts for you, based on what you usually like and interact with. (Or, if we’re being a touch more cynical, based on what Instagram wants you to like and interact with ?.) You might be top of the grid for yourself, but not for your husband, for example, because you both tend to like and click on different things.
It seems reasonable then to assume that they would next be extending this to hashtags as a whole. Certainly, this would cause some people’s posts to not be visible to all accounts – because, a little like the Explore page, you have to earn your exposure there based on the quality of your posts. This is sometimes called a ‘goodness score’ – based on things like how many comments, likes, clicks, saves, replies, follows you get.
The better a post scores, the better your exposure for that, and probably your next, post.
If you’re playing the system or using bots, then of course, your score is going to be screwed. You’re interacting with hundreds of accounts, many of whom will never return the favour. Your ratios are low, your demographics are all over the place and you’re probably receiving an awful lot of likes from other automated accounts in return. Instagram’s system has no idea who to promote you to, so you’re never deemed relevant to any particular hashtag, and you’re rarely visible on the grids.
On the other hand, if you’re using good practice, hashtagging appropriately, interacting within your niche and being a real human being – hurray! You should be fine! You might see a slight decline in your daily engagement, but that should be in line with everyone else on instagram, so nothing to worry about.
And when a post does hit the hashtag grids, it’s likely to reap way more visibility than previously, and you’ll see posts going a bit nuclear like we did with the ‘top hashtag’ grids before Instagram algorised (I made that word up) them.
Phew! Did you make it through all that?
There’s lots more to say – about what this means for community, and for the future of hashtag browsing, but until anything is definite, I tend to err on the side of wait-and-see.
What I will say is, you don’t need to panic. And unless you were engaging in spammy behaviour, you don’t even have to change what you’re doing! Just keep creating, keep sharing, keep reaching out, and of course, keep checking back here & on my podcast for future updates ??.
Update (6th May 2017)
I chatted with a representative from Instagram in Germany today, who said that there was a glitch, and it has now been resolved. He said that they don’t even use the term ‘shadowban’ within Instagram, and that the only mechanism they have that functions slightly like that is used on spam accounts.
His final words to me were, “it should not be affecting normal accounts any more”.
Now, who’s for a cup of tea? x