When I first found out that I had to get on social media in order to “make it” as an independent writer, I felt slightly devastated. In order to be successful on social media, one has to have cat-like reflexes. If my Facebook taught me anything, my social media reflexes were more like that of a bloodhound… on Benadryl… after a beer.
A handsome ginger friend showed me how to set up my Instagram, post photos, use filters and hashtags, and find other people. I always trust a good looking ginger (terrible philosophy). But aside from the basic functions, I got kind of lost on how to find an Instagram following. It wasn’t like Tumblr where everything links back to everything (and you can go from puppies to porn in six clicks or less). So how could I get my content to spread like a good STD?
Luckily my friend Craig (@craigspalding) knew all about this stuff. He’s not quite a ginger but still handsome and trustworthy. Besides, what he lacks in red hair, he more than makes up for in fur and smarts. Craig actually works in branding and according to him, a great way to get noticed was to get featured on pages that post other sexy male Instagrammers.
I had already been following a few of these kinds of pages, like @bearscubsandskruff and others, who had tens of thousands of followers. Admittedly, pages like these made Instagram a lot more entertaining. Although it would get a little strange to scroll through my feed and see my friend’s cute, little baby only then to see a cute, little person in a jockstrap. But I appreciated it all nonetheless.
Craig suggested that I send a message to these pages and just ask them to feature my photos. Meanwhile he pointed out a couple of other pages - ones that had hundreds of thousands of followers. The @thebubbleone page featured abnormally hot guys whose rears put Beyonce to shame. And the @tattooedboys page featured guys of a weirdly specific thug-like, yet preppy nature, all ripped on steroids and riddled with tattoos. How on earth would I ever get featured on these pages?
“Well, you might have to pay them,” Craig warned.
“I’ll have to pay them?!” I was shocked. “How much does something like that cost?”
Craig shrugged. “I dunno. Like ten bucks, maybe?” He could see the concern on my face. “It could be worth it though. Think of the exposure. Besides, you have a great butt!”
Well, who was I to argue that last part? But still, something about this just felt weird - especially for a guy who thrives on authenticity. To Craig, it was a clever marketing strategy. To me, it felt like one of those dicey shortcuts through the woods.
Finally one day I figured I would give it a shot. I sent a message to @thebubbleone, along with a photo of my naked ass, and asked nicely if they’d post it. They responded with a price chart: one photo for $22, two for $35, three for $42, and so on and so on. I didn’t expect to pay this much! I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to get followers this way. In my immediate confusion, I just decided to not respond and leave it alone.
(To see the screen shot and ass shot of this conversation, go to the NSFW version of this essay)
After a few months, @bearscubandskruff, and the likes, began to notice my content and they asked me if they could feature some of my photos. They didn’t want any money. They genuinely liked my content and wanted to share it. This felt right.
Between them and posing for the ever-so-fucking talented Mack Sturgis (@macksturgis), my follower base began to grow. I did it the way Instagram set it up to be. I interacted and collaborated with other users. People were finding my page and it was directing them to my blog. The whole thing was working and I didn’t have to pay a dime. Still though, I couldn’t help but have a nagging sense of impatience. I still salivated for faster results.
Then one day, while flipping through Instagram stories, I saw a post from @tattooedboys. It said “50% off features today only.” Nothing draws me in better than a good deal. I will buy the stupidest crap if I think I’m going to get a bargain.
“I would like to take a 50% off feature,” I wrote them.
They wrote back “Hello! Posts are usually $40. Can do 1 for $20 or 2 for $30.”
His posts were $40?! Even a $20 feature seemed too much. I tried to backpedal. “Oh, jeez. That’s a pricey feature. I’ll think about it. Thanks.”
But he continued to forthpedal. “Mate 2 for $30 is a huge package with our page.”
I still tried to resist.
“Mate our page is 400k with real followers :)”
But would I get ripped off?
“We have over 6,000 posts and 4 years of experience mate :)”
It might have been all the stats he kept throwing at me, or maybe it was all the smiley faces at the end of his last few messages, but I caved. “Ok, where do I send pics/money to?”
He gave me his paypal address and an email to send the pics. My gut told me not to do this. Something felt very wrong here. But 400k followers? Even if only 10% of his audience saw my photo, that’d mean 40,000 people would see me. And then if only 10% of them liked my photo enough to check out my Instagram page, that would mean 4,000 potential new followers. And if only 10% of them checked out my blog, that’d mean a potential 400 new subscribers. How could I not try this?!
The moment I sent the money, I felt a weird sense of pressure to be perfectly muscled and tattooed. How in the hell do I pick photos for an audience of this size? I immediately started inundating Craig with choices (16 of them to be exact) to help me choose which ones to be featured. Which ones do I choose? WHICH ONES DO I CHOOSE?! I began to panic.
(To see the 16 photos, go to the NSFW version of this essay)
Craig did not respond - as he shouldn’t have. He was not my personal, 24 hour emergency brander/marketer. Fortunately another friend had the availability to help make my selection. I sent the money and emailed the photos.
A few days later, my first photo still hadn’t been posted. However I did receive a new message from @tattooedboys with a new offer. He called it some kind “limited” package deal. For $120 a month, you’d get 10 permanent posts on the page AND their story AND they’d like the post AND this and that and yada yada yada.
I wrote back “Thanks for the offer. I’m still waiting for my other pics I submitted to you to get posted first. Once I see how they do, I’ll consider this option.” I ended it with a winky face.
I didn’t hear back and my first photo still hadn’t popped up. A week went by and I messaged again “Hey so just checking in. I paid you and sent you photos over a week ago and they haven't been posted yet. When do they get posted? Thanks.”
@tattooedboys responded, “Send photos here.” Meaning to send them via direct message on Instagram. This seemed weird seeing as how before he had me email them.
I sent him the first pic. He asked for my Instagram name. This also seemed kind of strange. Couldn’t he just see it on the screen? But I gave him my name anyway, along with the second photo.
After he finally posted my first photo, I eagerly awaited for my numbers to grow on Instagram and the blog. The Instagram did see a small bump in followers, but no more than when @bearscubsandskruff featured me. Actually, it might have even been less. And then the blog didn’t seem to get any new subscribers.
I started to get self conscious and constantly check back to see how many “likes” the photo was getting. They clocked in at less than 2,000. This didn’t look extraordinary - not for 400k followers anyway. Something was wrong. The problem had to be me. I didn’t look like these guys. I wasn’t muscled enough to be there. (side note: this is how marketing fucks people up)
If getting my first photo posted was difficult, then getting the second photo posted would be a total nightmare. I tried asking numerous times without any response. When he eventually did respond, he said something about having a dispute with the old owners and that some people didn’t get their photos posted. Our confusing conversation eventually led to my re-sending the second photo with some shred of hope.
Another week and a half went by and still nothing. I messaged yet again.
His response: “Hey bro, So sorry we have a bit of a que and it’s hard with timing and everything. Would you be interested in upgrading this one pic to a deluxe package and we can get you in a fast line and up quicker ?? [fire emoji] [fire emoji] [okay finger emoji]”
This guy now wanted to charge me $30 MORE for what I already paid for? He couldn’t even place his question marks correctly nor spell the word “queue.” I’m not even sure I understood his choice of emojis. But then again, I’m not very good at speaking in emoji.
I protested but @tattooedboys assured me that this new deluxe package would move me up the line. I decided to offer some logic. Why would I pay him more money if he couldn’t even honor what I had already previously paid him for? It appeared as though this had gotten through to him. He agreed to post the photo as originally arranged, giving me a good spot to make up for the troubles.
To no shock, the second photo still didn’t get posted. And by then, I realized that it wasn’t ever going to get posted. Nothing makes you feel more shitty and stupid than that of getting ripped off - even if isn’t by much. I had to keep trying though. I sent a message again. Oddly, I received back the EXACT same response as before - offering the same deluxe package with the same spelling errors, the same misplaced question marks, and the same random emojis.
Now I knew something was up. I decided to ignore him and actually investigate his page. Many of his photos (maybe more than half) didn’t even have shoutouts or tags to other people on Instagram. Most just mentioned another page called @fitboyzofinsta.
Of course I had to take a stroll over and check out @fitboyzofinsta. It pretty much had all the same photos as @tattooedboys and this time, the shoutouts and tags promoted another page called @tattoos_n_fitness. When I checked out this one, it was again all the same photos of all the same guys.
Meanwhile back on the @tattooedboys page, I began to notice that I was not alone in the disproportionately low level of likes. Most of their posts received around 2,000 or less likes. That’s only 0.5% of their audience. Occasionally a photo would get around 4,000-5,000 likes. But even then that’s barely 1% of their audience. Clearly a majority of his followers were fake accounts that he had most likely purchased.
I’ll admit that when I first found out that you could just buy fake Instagram followers, my gut thought well duh, I’ll just do that! But in the 1.5 seconds that it took for my brain to catch up, I realized that this would be pointless. Since those accounts are not backed by real people, none of them would be potential blog readers (not to mention it would completely negate my legitimacy). But for a page like @tattooedboys, it gives the right first impression to lure in the unsuspecting suckers who want some exposure.
It was official: @tattooedboys was a scam and I had fallen for it.
I wanted to retaliate. I wanted to write him and say “Do you know who I am? I run a very successful blog!” But in truth, I was powerless and that only compounded the feelings of shitty stupidity even further. While my blog continued to gain great success, I was (and still am) a nobody.
And thank God for that! Had I been famous enough to hold any weight, the lessons in this would've whizzed right past me. Actually, this is probably why celebrities can’t stop acting so stupid. When we constantly get our way or feel vindicated all of the time, we never really learn anything. And truly, I don't want to be beyond the lessons of the everyday person.
In my pursuit of becoming a successful, independent writer, I got too caught up in the numbers game. While the size of the audience does matter, obsessing over it gets stressful. Chasing it too hard can lead us to do some shortsighted things. In my own impatience, I took the dicey shortcut and now felt worse about myself than ever. Paying my way to popularity isn’t who I am. It’s not how I want to gain success. And as cheesy as it sounds, I want people to like me for me. Not only was I a sucker, but I sucked for trying to succeed this way.
This last week, I reached that first landmark of 10k followers on Instagram. I am thankful for the feature pages who have voluntarily reposted and promoted my content - especially George at @bearscubsandskruff, who has clearly built a bona fide audience. In addition to posting my pics on the regular, he genuinely loves this blog and has often promoted it as well. He has proven that when I legitimately connect with folks like him, I can grow in good ways. But when I get too desperate and greedy, I can only lose.
Still though, I can’t help but be irritated that pages like @tattooedboys persist. When I called him out on being a scam, he denied it and then proceeded to delete all of his messages from our Instagram chat (just like innocent people do). Fortunately I had taken screenshots of most of it when I started to have my suspicions.*
I asked a couple of tatted comrades to hit him up for a feature to see the current response. Apparently now, @tattooedboys claims to be a marketing business and their packages start at $89. I felt fortunate that I didn’t drop this kind of money but I feel bad for those out there who might. I want this to end - not for my own vindication but for theirs. While I may not have the celebrity status or mass following to stop @tattooedboy, I at least I have the skill to write about the truth.
There’s always going to be con artists in the world and we will always be susceptible to getting taken in. We can either spend a ton of energy trying to force them to set things right or take them down, or we can just use less energy in figuring out how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place so that we don’t do it again. For every swindler, there is a sucker. And since the swindlers will always exist, all we can do is try to remember how not to suck.
* Please note: Not all of the screen shots and dialogue are presented in this essay.
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