How to Make Friends and Out-Instagram Your Enemies

Jealous of others having more Instagram followers than you? Want to be seen as an influencer? Paid services, such as SocialBuddy (“We drive real, targeted people to your Instagram page. Real growth, real audience who are interested in your content”) and SocialSteeze (“Our service helps you grow your Instagram account, with powerful Instagram growth, get real instagram followers & engagement”) offer to fix that.

The general idea with personal social-media marketing is that you pay a company to follow people for you on Instagram, in the belief they will follow you back. The company often allows you to request usernames, industries, locations, or hashtags to target new followers. All this is done mostly with bots, which in some cases will also like others’ posts (or your own), or auto-leave comments on others’ posts (or your own), to indicate engagement.

SocialBuddy is $59 per month, for a basic plan. SocialSteeze starts at $15 per week.

Instagram suspends accounts they suspect of bot-play, for several possible categories of violations in their terms of use. This has become a bigger deal for all social media companies after Russian-interference-by-Facebook was discovered in the 2016 US election.

Still, a woman I know of went from 200 followers to 30,000 in a matter of weeks.

Once people follow you back, the company apparently unfollows many of them after a week, betting they will never notice. Perhaps the fault lies in our metrics, or companies know no one can survive 30,000 followers’ feeds. Maybe if you aspire to be very popular, you are expected to be liked more than you like.

The woman with 30,000 new followers is an actress. (If you have been friended and then defriended by actresses lately, as I have, do not be hurt.) She is said to believe casting directors might glance at her Instagram to see if she is someone. If the only thing they register is that she has legions of followers, they might be willing to invest time in her.

To be an “influencer” used to mean profiting by directing people to do things or buy things. Now it also means being seen as a player, whether as an actor in L.A., or as someone worth doing business with in the hinterlands.

A friend who owns a small business has tried SocialSteeze. He got 800 new followers after only four days. Customer service began well, with professional correspondence—So glad you’re with us, etc., All best, Mike and Amy—but as soon as he had signed up, he was made to deal exclusively with non-native speakers, who would only correspond at times in the night that pointed to China.

They needed his two-factor authentication code to be able to work on his behalf, and at midnight would order: “Send us the code.” He sent it. They went silent until the next night, at 4 am, then cried, “You must send the code!” When he canceled, Mike and Amy jumped back in to say they were sorry to see him go. This must happen a lot; the SocialSteeze website has separate links, prominently displayed, to cancel or to request a refund.

SocialSteeze has also drawn attention for apparently trying to inflate their own reputation, by posting their own fake reviews—a sort of meta-influencing that makes my head swim.

If you go to Trustpilot, a “free and open to all review platform, built on collaboration,” you can watch this happen, as well the backlash against it. There are 124 reviews for SocialSteeze.

Many of the best reviews sound like “Elmer”:

“I am using this company a few months ago. I don’t see any bad result or negative effect it always help my business but I don’t know some people saying socialsteeze not good and their given negative reviews. anybody Explain it. Really I am confused.”

The worst reviews sound like this:

“This ‘service’ delivered almost nothing after a couple months and a couple hundred dollars of payments to it—and as a professional travel photographer, my gallery should have been among the easiest to grow. They couldn’t even provide me access to a dashboard of any kind to show WHAT they were doing and its results for me. Bottom line—It is not real, folks, and I’m pretty sure all these reviews are fake. It was a huge waste of money for me. Also, pay attention to the similarity of its reviews compared to the other companies apparently run under the same shell scheme.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.