“It’s not right that we’re doing this”: inside the Instagram mafia

Photographer Sara Melotti reveals the reality behind the numbers. 

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At the Tegallalang rice terraces in Bali, Sara Melotti had an epiphany. The 29-year-old blogger and photographer was visiting the Indonesian island with a group of Instagrammers – that is, people who are famous or make their living on the picture-sharing site. The tranquil terraces are surrounded by layers of lush green foliage, making them a popular spot for tourists and social media users alike. “Bali is what changed everything because that's when I realised: what are we doing?” says Sara. “Like what the fuck are we doing with our lives?”

It was Sara’s fellow Instagrammers who inspired this epiphany. After arriving at Tegallalang and taking their photos, the group immediately turned to leave. “It was like wha... why should we go?” explains Sara. “It’s a beautiful place, we just got here, let’s enjoy it. And that was the first trigger.”

Sara is talking about her slow disillusionment with the social network Instagram. It may be no surprise that many of the app’s most famous users set up the perfect shot without really interacting with the surrounding scenery. Around the world there are many “IG spots”, where Instagrammers go to take photos that will automatically garner likes. Yet just over a month ago, Sara wrote a blog post exposing an even darker side to the app: the “Instagram mafia”.

“That’s what I call it… it’s not the technical name,” says Sara, who learnt about the “mafia” from an Instagrammer who she does not wish to name. She met the man in Bali, a few weeks after he had created a new Instagram account. “He already had like 20,000 followers and his picture had 9,000 likes,” says Sara, who has nearly 33,000 followers. “So I was like, are you buying your likes and followers? He said he wasn’t, and then he explained to me all about the Instagram mafia.

“When he explained about that, when I got to know that existed – something broke in me.”

In 2016, Instagram’s algorithm changed. Previously, the app would show you the posts of people you followed in chronological order, but an algorithm-driven feed was introduced to pick and choose photographs. Instagram claimed its homepage would be “ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most”, but Instagrammers quickly figured out the algorithm’s driving force. Pictures that gained the most likes and comments soon after being posted were the ones that most users saw.

Sara – and many other Instagrammers – felt this was unfair. The change meant many photos were lost in the ether, and it gave an immediate advantage to users who were already popular on the site. Instagrammers had and have a variety of tricks to get noticed on the app (posting at certain types of the day, going to certain places, selecting a theme for their photographs) but Sara says that after the algorithm change things started to get “dirty”.

“It is just absurd to me that a person spends his life on an app trying to trick an algorithm,” she says.

In response to the algorithm change, Instagrammers took to WhatsApp and Facebook chat to form what are known as “comment pods” (this originally took place on Instagram’s messaging service but users began to fear the site would clamp down on the groups). Inside a comment pod, hundreds of Instagrammers agree to post their pictures at the same time – in New York city, the most popular hour is 2pm. Once the picture is live, the Instagrammers link to it in their pod, whose members then like and comment on each other’s photos, garnering them hundreds of thousands of likes.

“To me it's just absurd that this is even happening… how did we get here?” says Sara. “[It’s] a status thing, so if you like have more comments, you look cooler, you look like people care about you more. It’s all about ego.”

Yet, as Sara goes on to explain, it is also about much, much more than just ego. Over the last few years, influential Instagrammers have made thousands of pounds via posts on the site. These social media influencers are paid by brands to feature products on their Instagram accounts, and the money offered largely depends on an influencer’s number of followers, likes, and comments. According to talent agents, Instagrammers with a million followers can get £3,000 for a single post.

“If you are willing to just advertise for anything then you can make a lot of money,” says Sara, who says she is “picky” and only features products she actually likes on her account.

Yet before her epiphany, Sara did use comment pods. “At the time it didn’t seem wrong, it was just time-consuming,” she says. After a while, she became exhausted by the hours spent liking and commenting on other people’s photos. “I was just doing these comments and I was thinking like this is taking time away from my life that I want to live. This is not right that we're doing this.”

Another tool that Sara used – Instagress – has now been shut down after a “request” by Instagram. Instagress was a paid-for bot site that allowed Instagrammers to automatically follow and comment others’ posts without having to do so manually. “From day one I felt torn about doing this but it was the promise that if you have a ton of followers then life will be easier,” says Sara, explaining she thought it would help her get photography and advertising jobs. “With that promise in mind I was like ‘oh it's okay to do it for now and I will reach this amount and I will stop’ but then it just went on and on and on.”

Despite this hiccup, Sara comes across as an exceptionally moral person. She quit her job as a fashion photographer in New York because she felt guilty about perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards. Then, to remedy this, she started the project Quest for Beauty, a photo series of women from around the world that aims to illustrate “what beauty really is”. Before her life-changing trip to Bali, she spent a month and a half in India interviewing victims of acid attacks. When asked why she exposed herself and other Instagrammers by coming clean about the dodgy dealings on the site, her answer is simple.

“I just had to, my soul was crying for me to do it.”

Many Instagrammers are currently less than happy with Sara (“I definitely lost a few friends,” she says), while those who casually use the app are thrilled that she exposed the “bullshit” on the site. Like the modelling photos she used to shoot, Sara feels Instagram photos can give people unrealistic expectations.

“Where are we headed to? We're so surrounded by all this fakeness. The pictures we post don't portray reality. They portray a dream that doesn’t really exist… My pictures have to be looked at as paintings, they’re not real life, they’re artistic.”

A tiny little warning symbol features in Sara Melotti’s latest Instagram post. With her back to the camera, she stares out at the calm waters of Omo River, Ethiopia. Her face is hidden, but her short denim dungarees and large straw hat are in sharp focus. “This pic does not reflect reality,” she ends her caption of the dream-like photo. “I took it after a long morning in the excruciating heat.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh