Automation and Gaming of Instagram

NOTE: If you are reading this in May 2017, this was written in January 2017. I now have a decent crew of folks to shoot with, and am not using any marketing on my account anymore.

Instagram punishes users for experimentation unless it’s through its stories. Basically when you create an account the more photos you add, the more locked into an audience and style you get. If you deviate from that style, like I did for two weeks in 2015, you can lose 25% of your followers. The right response to this is to-heck with those followers. A more thought out response is why doesn’t Instagram just send users that would like the change your way?

After experimenting with street photography for two weeks, I went back to the old style of landscapes that I used to post. It’s interesting to note that at this time, Instagram was really freaked out about Snapchat, who rebuffed a $3 billion dollar offer from Facebook. People were posting less and less on Instagram. “It became a place where people kept raising the bar on themselves in terms of the quality of what they had to achieve to post,” says Kevin Weil, Instagram’s head of product, “We didn’t want that.”

I changed my style because after a nasty fall doing photography in the rain, street photography reflected the broken-ness that I was feeling. I wasn’t only broken physically but broken in other realms of my life. I had and still have a long standing feud with a photo stealer currently running a huge community hub. This person abuses the position and the prestige as a community manager for personal gain – the Donald Trump of the photo world that threatens people that call out photo theft with police action.

Demoralized, I had nowhere to turn. Nobody wanted to shoot with me back in 2015, and it’s 2017 and I still have a ridiculously hard time finding people to shoot with. Maybe I should just isolate myself and focus on my art. Maybe life’s different at 20,000 followers I thought. Maybe it’s worth doing anything I could to get there, and my life would be different?

In August of 2016, I set about learning everything I could about marketing my Instagram account. I found an Instagram knowledge-base of sorts in Liz Dean’s InstaRevealed marketing Facebook group. Instarevealed is just one of many businesses promising account growth, and to be honest, she delivers. You basically are funneled into following their IG account, and join a Facebook group where folks share their success stories on reaching 1k, 5k, 10k followers and up. You can join a “comment pod” which has a bunch of guidelines. Comment pods are for folks like me that got betrayed by their crew, got dropped by other IGers, or never had anybody to shoot with in the first place. They grow your likes by making sure 14 people comment on your post within 15 minutes so that it grows. They are also for the shadiest people I’ve ever met on a social networking app.

Here are the motley types you will find:

1) The diva of awful photographs, who so believes they’re entitled or owed 100,000 followers, and all they shoot are pixelated, blurry photographs of the worst sort. This person will bitch in the group about not getting enough likes or that the algorithm is somehow biased against them. I’ve cursed this person out with, “Why don’t you level up your photography?”

2) The person that you thought grew their following authentically but never did. After reading this article you’ll be able to tell which of your Instagram heroes aren’t heroes at all. You’ll see them saying shots are killer for the 14 or so folks per pod that they are in that have the crappiest photos, or the photos might be decent but their comments’ enthusiasm in no way matches the photo. A photo of Grandma’s Grave will get “Killer shot dude! Lit!”

3) The photo stealer is someone in your pod who just posts photos by other people. The way they explain it is that by using purely viral photos from other people they can grow their account the quickest. This is absolutely true, and it seems Instagram HQ doesn’t care about fixing this except for a broken DMCA process.

4) Real friends. Yeah, this sort of surprised me but I met a bunch of folks that I’d actually want to hang out with.

5) Oh, and there’s me. A person who used to run a San Francisco community account, gave it to a bunch of folks to run, and got back-stabbed by them. This person was bent on some sort of way for getting justice from this but realized their ruined and sad lives were justice enough. Occasionally reporting stolen photos to Instagram and having Instagram take them down is enough.

So comment pods will get you likes, but to grow followers at a rate of 5000 or so a month, you need to do something different. I signed an NDA and so can’t go into what this is. Let’s just say I did this for 6 months, and at 20,000 followers still find myself shooting alone. There’s an automated way of doing this where you can just set it and forget it. There’s the manual way of doing this, where folks will spend 8 or more hours a day blowing up their accounts. It was truly sad seeing people game Instagram for 8 hours a day or more when they could actually just learn a bit of photography, photo editing and web development.

I decided to stop growing my account because I felt, “Hey, this is where I’d probably end up if I did become a suggested user.” I also stopped because lots of folks started spreading the false rumor that I was buying followers. Marketing for follows, and buying them aren’t the same in my book.

What I want to do now has nothing to do with marketing. Instead, I’d rather just go back to using my account the way I used to – posting whatever I want and connecting with whomever I want. Also, I want to focus on creating a photography book. After that, I eventually want to create an app, because owning your own social networking / photography app:
“It’s like a final club. Except we’re president.”

Crowd Sourced Travel with Letskedaddle

On Black Friday, instead of shopping, I decided to #OptOutside along with REI and Letskedaddle. I didn’t buy anything that day and instead decided to enjoy the great outdoors with like-minded folks at Point Reyes National Seashore.

What is Letskedaddle? It is crowd sourced travel. Assume you want to get to Yosemite on a certain date. You announce your intention on Letskedaddle and if enough people want to go on that date (at least 10), your trip and everybody else’s gets funded. It’s a cheap and more convenient alternative. It can take 10 to 12 hours to get to Yosemite if you take public transportation from San Francisco.

boarding the bus to adventure
Crowd Sourced Travel

On Black Friday, the crew I was with ended up going to Point Reyes. We boarded at REI in San Francisco and in 90 minutes were at a trailhead leading to creeks, forests and coastal views. The forest was so lush and green! It was quite the treat to get away from the city.

Lush greenery awaits!
Lush Greenery

Are you looking for a great way to get to hard to reach places with friends? Check out Letskedaddle.

Day Tripping to Yosemite

One of the most rewarding day trips from the San Francisco Bay Area is a 4 hour drive to Yosemite National Park. This year I’ve only done one day trip to Yosemite. It was on my way back from Death Valley National Park.

Here’s what you need to pack if you are going between now and until Spring of 2017. Besides the basics you will need:

1) A paper map and compass because there is limited cell service in Yosemite unless you have Verizon. Better yet, get a GPS.

2) Tire chains or 4 wheel drive in case of snow.

3) A sleeping bag in case you get stuck in the road in the cold.

4) $25 for the park pass to allow your automobile and passengers if any into the park.

5) For fun, bring stuff you might bring for a picnic!

Here is an itinerary for a day trip to Yosemite.

2:00 am – Leave San Francisco
6:00 – 6:30 am – Arrive at Tunnel View in Yosemite to catch sunrise.
8:00 – 10:00 am – Grab breakfast at Yosemite Lodge or eat somewhere picturesque in the Valley. At this time of year there should be parking along side of the road.
10am until sunset – Explore the valley, and photograph!
After sunset – head back to San Francisco

A spot you can drive right up to!
A spot you can drive right up to!

For photographers, finding the right light will be challenging until golden hour, so there are a few hours to kill, or a few hours to get to the right spot. If you’re looking for a work out, Vernal Falls is a great hike. I would personally stay in the valley and photograph along the Merced River, and Sentinel Bridge capturing the iconic Half Dome. This is such a treat when there’s snow on the ground, too. Another valley option is a quick, short hike to the base of lower Yosemite Falls. The options are endless for a day trip.

A 3.5 mile round trip hike from the Happy Isles!
A 3.5 mile round trip hike from the Happy Isles!

However, for the more adventurous, Vernal Falls can be done in a day during the winter. Details on a hike to Vernal Falls when it is snowing can be found on the Yosemite National Park website.

A Review of the Mamot Plasma 30 Sleeping Bag

I felt a bit apprehensive before purchasing the Plasma 30 bag. It’s purpose seemed really narrow: Hikes where the temperature might be in the upper 60s and where the nights could plunge to around freezing, an alpine bag for early spring and late fall.

When I hiked to Discovery Point in Crater Lake National Park, I was glad I had this ultralight and warm, down bag. The temperature was around 32 degrees, and I needed no more than my long-underwear and baselayer to keep warm. I took advantage of such well thought out and luxurious features as the draft collar, and hood. At 32 degrees I was very warm.

At 1.44 pounds this is also the lightest 3 season bag I’ve ever used. In off-season Alpine hikes, I’m very confident this is the bag to use.
For winter, I would use the Lamina Z Torch sleeping bag which weighs 3.94 pounds. It’s rated to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and kept me very warm during New Year’s Eve in Yosemite when it was around 9 degrees.

Should you buy a Marmot Plasma 30 Bag? I think it’s the sort of bag for ultralight-backpacking from Spring to Fall.

Backcountry Camping at Crater Lake National Park

Backcountry camping affords the flexibility, freedom and solitude that is often lacking with car camping or just camping at a designated campsite. This weekend, I got to enjoy backcountry camping with a friend at Crater Lake National Park.

First, you get your backcountry permit from the Visitor Center. Some guides tell you you can do this at the Rim Village. This is no longer true. After that you can camp anywhere that is a mile away from the nearest paved road, and out of sight of any trails. A popular route is hiking, or in our case, snow shoeing to Discovery Point.

Crater Lake at Sunset from Discovery Point
Crater Lake from Discovery Point, April 2016

The snowpack is its deepest (approx. 117 inches average) in March, and can last into July. Personally, I feel March and April are the best times to go because the southern approach is open unless there’s a snowstorm.

Setting up camp is encouraged close by trees where you can be protected from the wind, snow and/or rain. You cannot camp at the rim of the crater. Also, make sure you are prepared for the cold nights that can go to below freezing. After you’ve set up camp, you can enjoy the stars.

Milky Way from Crater Lake

Converting a 55 degree sleeping bag to a 35 degree bag

When I went to Yosemite this winter, I got to use a variety of gear. The experiment that made me the happiest was when I converted a 55 degree sleeping bag to a 35 degree bag. I did this by using 3 items.

The Alpine Bivy from Outdoor Research is a Goretex bivy that keeps you dry even if you were sleeping in a stream. I never got to test that part out, but because you are sealed in versus a regular tent, it added a layer of warmth.

Alpine Bivy

The Sea to Summit Extreme Thermolite Liner claims to add 25 degrees to your sleeping bag. I have tested in 35 degree weather in Yosemite and was comfortable, but when I was in Joshua Tree with 40 degree weather without the Sol Escape Bivvy, I struggled to stay warm through out the night. I think it only adds 10 degrees thus turning my 55 degree bag to a 45 degree bag.

The Sol Escape Bivvy by itself seems to be the equivalent of a 45 degree bag. When used in combination with the Alpine Bivy, and Thermolite Liner, you now have equipment that will keep you very comfortable at 35 degrees. I definitely want to test it to lower temperatures. Have you tried a liner with a bivy to keep warmer?

Here is the rest of the combo below.

The Combo

Staying Warm in Below Freezing Weather

I camped in Yosemite overnight for New Year’s Eve in below freezing weather. In this podcast, I share tips and tricks for overcoming the freezing cold.

Season 01, Episode 02, Dressing for the Cold

I mention these great clothing companies:

  • Marmot, especially their ROM (Range of Motion) Jacket as being the perfect PNW (Pacific Northwest Jacket);
  • ExOfficio, which has great quick drying clothing; and
  • Northface, which has a great thermoball jacket to keep you warm down into the 20s (Fahrenheit), at least in my experience.

Instagram Hubs Are Bad & Are Just Link Farms

You open up Instagram. You see that someone has posted a photo you took. They say stuff like, “Congratulations, you have been featured!”

Are they featuring you out of the goodness of their heart?

While I was running the @IgersSF account, I would notice that featuring photos more often benefitted the @IgersSF account than the folks I featured in terms of likes and follows.

How can you tell the difference between a hub and a real Instagram community?

  • Hubs never asked your permission to post your photograph. More in depth details on this at DIYPhotography.
  • Hubs hardly if ever communicate back after they featured you.
  • Hubs have owners that are elusive and are rarely seen in the real world. They might even be bots coded to auto-feature *cough* steal photos, and grow an account.
  • Hubs never give back to the community.

What’s the solution to hubs? Google came up with a solution a long time ago for link farms, and it’s about time that Instagram implement it.

“Search engines countered the link farm movement by identifying specific attributes associated with link farm pages and filtering those pages from indexing and search results.” (from the Wikipedia article on Link farms)

A similar thing can be done for Instagram hubs using a Bayesian filter.

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