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

Photographer Sara Melotti reveals the reality behind the numbers. 

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 technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.