Yes, you read that right.
This isn’t a play on words or a creative click-bait trick and I honestly think I am the only person on the planet openly willing to admit this. Buckle up ladies and gents, because this is a long one.
Around six years ago I bought my Instagram followers on my personal profile and lived to tell the tale. While time has passed, the day that triggered this decision is still fresh in my memory.
It all started out innocently enough. I was at UT Austin, working on my Advertising degree. On this particular day, I woke up and decided to dress up for class. I rolled out of bed and began my morning ritual, spending nearly an hour putting together the right outfit, curling my hair, and applying my makeup. By the end of my process, I was feeling energized and dare I say pretty. So I did what any girl would do when they were feeling confident – I grabbed my phone, placed it in selfie mode, and took several shots. Once I sorted through all of my images and found that perfectly angled shot, I flew over to my Instagram and posted it.
As I reviewed my new picture I felt pleased. This would be it, this would be the record-breaking selfie that would launch me into stardom. I hopped on the bus to the library and as soon as I snagged a table I excitedly pulled out my phone and opened Instagram…
I shrugged my shoulders and convinced myself that I had only just posted. The picture clearly some extra time. I began working on my assignment and placed my phone face down but quickly succumbed to my temptation to check.
At this point, it had been nearly 45 minutes. I began staring obsessively at my phone.
Finally, one hour later I had hit my ceiling… at 20 likes.
There had to be an explanation. It was around lunchtime, maybe everybody was too busy eating to look at their phones? Maybe my hashtags weren’t strong enough? Maybe I was shadowbanned?
I felt distraught as I continued to refresh.
I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and as though I wasn’t good enough. I thought about deleting it and crossing my fingers that too many people wouldn’t notice.
As I ignored my assignment and allowed myself to obsess over my picture, my mind began to reel. But an idea quickly sparked in my head. I rode the bus back home, hunkered down in bed, and typed the words “how to buy likes and followers” into my phone browser.
And then I found it, an app with a simple red heart displayed in its thumbnail. It claimed it could get you thousands of real likes and followers at an affordable cost. I wish I could say I thought about the moral implications of downloading this app. I wish I pondered the logic, the stupidity, the intangibility – but I didn’t think twice. Before I knew it, the app was downloaded on my phone and I was inputting my debit card number for exchange for imaginary support on my selfie.
Then the notifications began. That glorious feeling of euphoria rushed through my body as that little orange icon appeared on my feed over and over again. The engagements were coming so fast that a new icon would pop up before the previous one had the chance to fade away. By the time the notifications had ceased, I got exactly what I paid for. My profile had grown from a mere few hundred followers to over one thousand. And that selfie I was so proud of had boosted from 20 to nearly 200 likes.
This was the feeling I had always craved – to be popular and desired. For that sense of belonging and purpose. I knew those likes were fake, but deep down I felt validation. I became so addicted to the false sense of purpose my likes were generating that I began backdating my old pictures with the fake likes to give off an appearance of success and admiration from the very beginning.
Before I knew it, my false sense of popularity bled outside of my social media circle into real life. I was offered fairly glamorous job and modeling opportunities, men flooded my DMs and comment section with compliments, and those popular girls who may have normally not wanted to look my way now wanted to be my friend (as long as I posted our pictures on my account). I was being recognized, I was validated, and I finally felt like I made it. And this was all thanks to a white lie and a little app on my phone.
But life catches up in interesting ways. No matter who you pretend to be and how much you want to avoid it, the truth will always find its way back to you.
For me, my truth caught up when I woke up one morning to discover that quite literally overnight Instagram had issued an application sweep, and as a result, my beloved app had been rendered unusable. I will never forget the feeling of defeat and panic as I helplessly tapped on the app’s icon over and over only to be met with an error message each and every time. My heart raced, my mind reeled, and I felt like I was back at square one.
At this point, however, I had become so used to the instant gratification and increased number of followers that I convinced myself I didn’t need it. I had a great following and my photos would easily exceed 50 likes minimum, right? I stared at the picture I had just posted and watched my like count.
And then… nothing. Without the assistance of my app, I was no longer under the impression that I was climbing the ranks, but instead, I was staying stagnant at the exact same spot as I started. 20 likes. My stomach flipped as I stared at the static number. 20 likes. Regardless of how much I tried, that was all I was worth. 20 likes.
I wish I could tell you that at the time, I very maturely decided I didn’t care anymore. That I convinced myself that this was just a silly number. Instead, I chose to go dark for quite some time, deciding it was better not to share at all than to not be popular.
That moment took place six years ago, and I’m not going to lie, I still feel that defeat and pain of rejection. While I did eventually come back to sharing on social, my actions still haunt my personal profile to this day. While my follower count grew by nearly 1,000, the accounts that followed me were mostly fake. It is nearly impossible for me to clear them all out quickly, so anytime I log in to that account and am met with a raw reminder of my actions. This is what I asked for, what I wanted so badly…now it is a subtle string on my finger, encouraging me to stay humble and true to myself.
Looking back and knowing what I do today there are several things I learned from buying my followers, but here are the top three lessons:
Authenticity Is Cool
The landscape of Instagram has changed so much since I purchased those followers in 2013, and I believe today buying followers and likes has become much more commonplace than we may think. But speaking to you now and after working in the influencer world, I have found that the idea of your follower count determining your pull as an influencer has become truly antiquated.
Followers and brands aren’t impressed by a verification checkmark or six-figure follower count anymore, what really attracts and retains attention is a sense of realness and authenticity on your profile. In fact, more than ever, brands are shifting away from larger influencers because they are finding truly genuine micro-influencers hold a closer, more intimate connection with their follower base than those with 6-figure counts.
Whether you live an extravagant lifestyle or a simple one, in order to be successful on social media you just need to ultimately be yourself. Don’t post things you would never say and don’t endorse products you would never use. The landscape has shifted from quantity to quality. In fact, as I type this post right now, I have a little over 300 followers on Instagram. To many, that may seem unimpressive, but to me, I am truly honored. Because those 300 people are following me for me, truly and genuinely. For some reason or another, they find value in what I am putting out into the world, and nothing will ever replace that connection.
Honestly, Living a Lie is Exhausting
While I have many other warnings against buying or falsifying your followers or likes on social media, I think one of the biggest things that stood out to me was simply how exhausting playing a charade full-time can be.
The guilt of lying to the faces of those you care about, the secrecy of hiding your boosting apps in secret folders, and the stress of praying that somebody didn’t see your follower count increased by 100 in less than five minutes overcomes you. This isn’t a way to live, and I truly believe keeping something like this inside can have a detrimental effect on your mental health.
I lost count of how many times I would hide in the bathroom at a bar furiously tapping the “buy” button on my app in order to boost up an image I had just posted of myself and my friends so they wouldn’t be suspicious. I can’t tell you how often my heart dropped when Kevin was using my phone and his finger got dangerously close to the folder where I hid my app. There was so much wasted time and energy to become something I truly wasn’t – putting on a mask that painted me in a much different light not only to the people I didn’t know online, but to the individuals who cared about me the most.
When you are trying to grow your brand presence as an influencer, this stress can continue to bleed over into your business prospects. As the influencer industry becomes more and more regulated and technology to pinpoint falsified numbers online becomes more accessible to brands, you run a very likely risk of being found out. And in case you aren’t, you will deal with the additional pressure of maintaining your facade not only to your followers, friends, and family but also to your business partners. Save yourself the stress and stay honest.
You Are Worth SO Much More Than Your Likes
The biggest thing I hate as I was revisiting this whole story is that I let an arbitrary number define me. I truly convinced myself that I was not as worthy or wonderful of a person compared to somebody else just because they were able to get more people to double tap on an image than me. Isn’t that silly?
Popularity shouldn’t be defined by your social media followers, it should be defined by the pride in yourself and how those around you in the real world treat you. I wish I had a time machine to go back and sit with myself in the university library six years ago. I wish I could tell myself that 20 may seem like a low number, but to look between the lines. Those 20 people offered me support. My good friends told me I looked great in that picture. Not only that but when I looked at it I felt good about myself. It shouldn’t matter if a stranger who I would never meet agreed.
At the time, social media was a painful obsession that I quite literally shaped my life around. That number defined my worth, and nothing could be accomplished without a full photoshoot and an hour’s worth of editing. But that should never be the case. You are worth so much more than a double-tap. Remember that.
Buying followers and likes is still more common than one may think amongst the influencer industry, but things may be set to change as Instagram prepares to hide likes in America this month. When I created Gamer In A Gown, I promised myself that I would try to make this venture as authentic as possible. I told myself that this account is being run for me first and my followers second – I would never post something that I felt was disingenuous and that I would never limit what I was able to write about. If my profile filled with likes and followers, great! If not, so be it. At least I can look back at my blog with pride with a community of those who genuinely care.
I can now confidently say that I have learned and grown from my past. Moving forward I am challenging myself to ignore the numbers and stay true to me…will you do the same?