In the last few weeks the phrase 'Instagram shadowban' has been banded about a lot - hundreds of accounts have seen a massive and sudden reduction in engagement on their posts, particularly small businesses. Since then, blogs have been popping up all over the place explaining what it is, how to find out if you've been affected and how to lift the ban. Unfortunately many of these blogs fail to mention that they're just putting forward speculative opinions; no-one actually knows what is going on and Instagram won't say any more other than we should stop relying so heavily on hashtags.
(If you are curious about any of the why/how/what if theories, I'd suggesting catching up on this post from Insta-Queen Sara Tasker [@me_and_orla] who provides a pretty well rounded opinion and some good insights on the whole topic).
As much as it seems like a scandalous admission, I'm pretty sure I was shadowbanned. I don't use an autobot, follow/unfollow or leave meaningless comments which leaves two remaining theories...
Repeated hashtags and intermittent liking.
Now, I don't copy and paste reams of hashtags, but there are a number of key ones I'll tend to use on a number of posts; when your 'target audience' is UK based small business owners there are only so many creative hashtags you can come up with (that said, if anyone has any suggestions please do share!). I'd post a few around the theme of #smallbusinessowners and #britishbrands and then freestyle a few tags based on the specific post itself. Maybe Instagram picked up some of the repeat offenders and considered them spammy?
The only other red flag I can think I raised was liking and commenting in quick succession. Instagram is a big part of the launch of my business and my favourite way to reach out to and connect with small business owners. But it is still only a part of it. I might spend a few minutes each hour responding to comments, liking pictures and sharing posts but it's not a full time job. This means that when I do log in, I'll scroll through my feed, take a look at the explore page and take a peek at some suggested users - but I'll probably do so quickly. If I like a post, I'll like it. If it resonates with me, I'll comment on it. If I've enjoyed someone's profile, I'll follow them. Just because I manage to do all of these things a number of times in a 10 minute period doesn't mean I'm spamming. It just means I'm being efficient for those minutes I'm logging on, and have other things to do for the remaining 50 minutes of that hour.
Whatever the cause, early last week I had my suspicions that the hammer had come down on my account - I'd post a photo and watch the tumbleweed roll by. To put things into perspective, I have a relatively new account and we've talking numbers in the low hundreds, not multiple thousands, but you come to expect a certain reaction from a post and when you don't get it, it's pretty clear something is up. The likes were still coming (sometimes) but at a far slower rate.
At first this was pretty frustrating and after what seemed like particularly low initial engagement on a post last week, I logged into another account to check one of the hashtags I'd used. Sure enough, my picture was nowhere to be seen. This meant that if you followed me or opened my profile, my picture would be there, but search the hashtag and it wouldn't show up.
Shit it - I'd been shadowbanned.
My initial reaction was probably more to do with a bruised ego than anything else, nothing says 'no-one likes you' more than people quite literally, not liking you. Then came mild panic - Instagram has been the main way I'd been reaching out to business owners in the past couple of months, if I couldn't hashtag them how the hell were they going to find me?! Then came simple disappointment - why the constant curveballs? I'm just trying to launch a business!
Well. It's done now, I was shadowbanned and the theories on how to get the ban lifted had even less merit than those claiming to know exactly why you were busted in the first place. They ranged from going back through every single hashtag and making sure none were 'broken' (who has time for that?!) to taking an arbitrary number of days logged out. Even then, there's no solid evidence that any of these tactics might actually work.
Having launched our retreats just days before (great timing Universe...) and become pretty emotionally invested in my IG journey over the last few months, I wasn't about to sack it all in.
It was time for a new strategy.
I say 'new' - it was nothing new, it was simply stripping Instagram back to basics. I still added some hashtags to each post just in case the ban had some funky algorithm that let the odd one slip through but each post was predominantly about just the picture and the attached caption. I wasn't looking for likes (as they probably wouldn't come!), I just had fun with creative thoughts and used the opportunity to discover more unusual hashtags for future posts.
Posting had a new sort of freedom that came with it; I wasn't expecting engagement so I didn't need to worry about optimising my posts for it. This then led to a change in my own Instagram usage - with less going on in my own account, I had time to mooch around others. I got involved with #mydirtysink and ended up with a more engaging and entertaining comment thread than I've had from any other posts.
And you know the real bonus of no hashtags? Those damn bots can't find you. Sure, my likes were down and the numbers were low, but the likes I did have were real. I knew for sure that the engagement I was getting was real interactions with real people. Scrolling through the list, I followed many of my 'likers' already; if there was anyone I didn't follow, there was a 90% chance that when I opened their profile it was going to be someone I was likely to be interested in looking at.
It's the most fun Instagram has been for me, knowing that when I opened the app to a handful of comments, they were all personalised conversations I was already a part of. It's what the app was originally intended for. Community.
Maybe it's because I took a little time out over the weekend while I was perfecting the art of tiling the bathroom, the fact that that my change in hashtag use flagged me as normal or perhaps the ban reaching a a nondescript time limit, but whatever the reason, come the end of the weekend, my shadow ban was lifted.
I should be relieved and exciting for a rush of engagement once again, but it's almost been a bit of an anti-climax. Sure, there are the likes - my first post back had a bunch of comments, but the thumbs up, high fives and delightful reminders that my grid is 'majestic', 'flawless' and 'the best of the day' fell a bit flat. I don't want 10 new followers who are simply going to be gone the next day.
Of course, the real engagement is still there, you just have to filter out the crap to find it. My whole Insta-outlook has changed though. I've always known I loved social media for the community, this was just the little reminder we all sometimes need that beneath the thumbs up and the excessive use of exclamation marks, there's nothing quite like having a real conversation.
Hopefully this is Instagram's first step towards tackling the bots and spammers out there and anything on that scale will hit a few bugs along the way. It's easy to get sucked into chasing numbers (however meaningless they might be) but I'm actually feeling quite lucky to have been forced to see how effective a platform it can be when it's used in the way it was designed for.