Instagram, WTF?

Instagram, WTF? Ever since Instagram changed their algorithm, I’ve been having trouble finding an audience on the platform. And by ‘audience’ I mean a reasonable amount of engagement on each photo as compared to before the change. Today I found out why engagement on Instagram is a struggle for me – I appear to be shadow banned.

If you’re not familiar with this concept, shadow banning is a way for Instagram to crack down on users who abuse their service by violating the terms of service, who use third party apps that automate activity, limiting an account that has been reported or you’re using broken hashtags.

Why I’M Banned

I went to a site that graciously offers to check your status with Instagram. They check your hashtags to determine if your photos are seen, on in my case, not seen. This is how I found out I’m being shadow banned.

Instagram, WTF?

Seriously, WTF? Ok after the shock wore off  I followed the advice of a related article that helps to understand why this might be happening to me. Since I don’t use any automated bots, thats not the answer. If anyone has reported my account, there is nothing I can do about that. I’m not on IG enough to like more than 150 photos in an hour so I doubt that’s the reason. So that left me looking at each individual hashtag I use on my photos to see which ones are causing problems. The following hashtags probably caused my image to be ‘banned’. The above image did not show up on any of these pages or these pages were ‘broken’ (they only showed a handful of images).

  • #xxsjc
  • #Toy_photographers
  • #PNWWonderland
  • #SonyA7ii
  • #Elephant
  • #safari

Each of these tags has either been abused by users on Instagram or IG thinks they could be. If you think about each one individually, you can kind of see where the folks behind the algorithm could be coming from. XX can easily be a porn site and I knew that ages ago. (Recently I changed my name to step away from that association.) Why Toy_Photgraphers is a problem is a mystery to me, but we seem to have a problem with our hashtag and may have to change it. Who knows what people have been posting under the other hashtags, but obviously some questionable photos over the years.


How many times have you read an article that explains how to use hashtags correctly? Hashtags are an important way for work to be discovered. But who knows which hashtags are the ‘right’ ones and which ones are broken or banned?

If your like me and you use a lot of hashtags out of loyalty to various toy groups, I might suggest now is a good time to cut down to the truly important ones. At the very least check each one of the tags you use and to make sure your photos are showing up in those communities. If you’re a participant in the toy pops twice a day free for alls – remember you’re limited to 150 likes and 60 comments per hour. By engaging with this platform in seemingly harmless and common activities, you may be engaging in risky behavior and opening yourself up to being shadowbanned.


As a regular user of Instagram, I have no idea what the algorithm is based on. All I know is that it changed from a simple time based algorithm to this:

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order—all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.

No details, no further explanation… only a trust us, we know better attitude.

One side effect of this attitude is the rise of ‘pods’. There are groups of people who band together to like and comment on each others posts to raise engagement. The more engagement you can create in the way of likes and comments will raise your chance of beating the algorithm. (Side not to myself: I guess I should participate in toy pops again.) The algorithm change has also created something known as “Instagram Face“. It seems it is actually changing our attitudes towards feminine beauty. Talk about unintended consequences!

That moment when you realize that Benni Instagram is laughing AT you and not WITH you.
Now What?

I’m going to take a break from Instagram for the weekend for the recommended 48 hour re-set. I will be back posting on Monday with a new and improved hashtag list, hopefully with no suspicious hashtags. Maybe, just maybe, I will get off the banned list.

In the mean time I now know that Instagram is laughing AT me and not WITH me.


Have you been shadow banned? If so, let me know in the comments. I don’t want to be the only one, but if I am, thats cool. That means that I’m the exception, not the rule. 🙂

A huge thank you to Jennifer for bringing this new insult from Instagram to my attention. Seriously, thank you!


  1. Very much now what? Instagram has been infuriating as of late. Switching back to a personal account seems to have already helped my secondary instagram account. My shadow ban on my main account remains. I’ve switched back to personal and am hugely decreasing hashtag use and we’ll see how it goes from there. Now’s the time for me to truly dive full force into Google +. Good luck to us all.

  2. Dennis

    So, I have taken a bit more of a scientific approach to seeing if my account has been banned and I think that website testing may be a bit misleading. I just randomly selected past posts of the last couple months and had it hit and miss. Some posts were not showing up in tags (“banned” for lack of a better term) while other posts did show up. I think it has to do with the quantity and variety of hashtags you use.

    With that said, this is bad. Very Bad. This violates the “net neutrality” mentality that the internet was built on. They are blocking users from reaching certain audiences and rewarding robotic behavior (IE your “pods” example of breaking the algorithm). This does nothing but produce regurgitated content and once again solidifies the fact that Instagram has turned its back on the creative community that made it famous.

  3. thereeljames

    Thanks for writing this post, Shelly, and I’m sorry to see that you got shadow banned! Avanaut’s case was the first I’d heard of it, and from what I can tell the folks at Instagram have been very tight-lipped about WHY there’s such a ban, and what to do about it.

    As Dennis said, it’s just another nail in Instagram’s coffin, and another sign that they’ve turned their backs on the community that helped them grow. Perhaps it’s not as sinister as it seems on the surface, but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless.

    In any case, it makes me happy to have switched over to G+ as my primary social space for my photography. Talk about a supportive platform!

    • Thanks James for the support! And yes, I agree about G+, its nice to have such an awesome community to fall back too. It really is no surprise that they would turn their back on the community, they are owned by Zuckerberg. We all knew this was coming. Im happy to play by the rules, but it would be nice to know what they are. Time to take a break from IG and simply enjoy G+. Between the blog, the community and my feed, honestly its more than enough social media for the movement. Cheers!

    • A lot of people have found that moving the hashtags out of the comments has helped. But I know for me that I had to also cull through my tags and remove old and broken ones. It would be nice to know the rules and have an even playing field. But I’m not going to hold my breath. :/

  4. I went to the website you recommended and typed in my IG user name. Apparently my latest photo (the painters with the Easter Eggs) has been shadow banned! Ugh! It’s just one more reason why I’m getting quite annoyed with Instagram lately. I definitely prefer Flickr and Google+.


    • Seriously? You too??? This is crazy! I can see if I was using old tags and not putting them in the main body of my post – I can sort of justify my own situation. But Lynn! You haven’t been on IG long enough to have picked up a bunch of bad habits. G+ and Flickr are indeed looking good by comparison. I will see you over there too!

  5. brett_wilson

    Yet another “dot-point” in my ever-growing Instagram “shitlist”.
    I too was shadow banned. I posted a new photo with limited tags in the photo caption instead of the first comment (as I usually do), and that lifted the ban on the new post. The plan was to drip feed my usual tags into the the edited caption, but I started by adding them all and checked…”Phew, you’re safe…for tonight!” WTF?
    So, if I add tags in the first comment, banned? If I add the exact same tags in the caption, everything’s cool? This makes no sense, and makes it impossible to figure out why the comment tags resulted in the ban? I checked some of the tags from another account I have access to, that doesn’t follow me, and yep, the shadow banned posts didn’t show up, but the one with the caption tags did? SAME TAGS???
    Like you say, if Instagram are going to implement this stuff, EXPLAIN HOW IT WORKS! If Instagram cared about their patrons, like we care about being seen, let us know what we need to do to ensure we aren’t “breaking their rules”!

    • I think Instagram is making it very clear who they care about and its not us. We don’t make them any money and we aren’t selling anything. We are the consumers and so we have no standing. I simply wish we would know the rules then we could play in the margins. But even this is denied us. I feel like a fool even continuing to play this ridiculous game. Oh well, I’m off to harvest moss and look for cool succulents. Priorities!!

  6. Just a guess, but, maybe, they did this, so the creators are protected from spam bots adding irrelevant hashtags as comments? So your photo won’t be shown in some inappropriate hashtag? But that is just a guess. IG is really weird these days, so who knows. I hate the new order in my feed. And I suddenly realized that I have nowhere to go, really 🙁 IG was so simple and nice… I never warmed up to Flickr or G+… I’m trying to use G+ but it’s not the same 🙁

    • Sabe, I know that IG has there reasons, and they are probably good ones. What I don’t like is the secrecy, the attitude of only select people know the rules. The rest of us have been shut out for weeks and months. This is not a new practice.

      I miss what IG was, not what it is. While so far there are no replacements for what IG used to be G+ is coming along nicely. We can’t go back, we can go forward to something new and hopefully better. Give G+ some time. 🙂

    • Stuart Im sorry to hear you’ve been banned too! I have no idea if it works because it means actually logging out for 48 hours and I haven’t been able to do that. What does work is looking at your hashtags and eliminating any that are broken. You can also move them into the body of the post and out of the comments. Mix-up your hashtags, use different ones. They are looking for people who are using the same set of hashtags over and over again. And to be clear, being banned simply means that no one outside your followers can see you. I hope this helps!! 🙂

  7. I just checked one of my images against the site and it told me it didn’t show up for any of the hashtags, but then when I went to the hashtag pages my post did indeed appear on those pages, so I’m not sure about this one still being legit. :-/

    In fact one of my recent posts has received more likes and comments than any of my other posts before it and I can only think that comes from the hashtag finds (it was before your awesome shout out in the recent winner announcement).

    Also XXSJC never read as a possible porn connection to me, I alway thought it was like “kiss kiss SJC” 😛

    • Awe, Im so glad you understood xx to be kiss kiss! I will not abandon it completely, I still like using it as my watermark. 🙂

      I have no idea what to think about the shadow banning controversy. Was it a hashtag in the comments problem, is it certain hashtags, or even how long this problem has existed. The lack of transparency is a little annoying. Although I just finished reading The Circle and I don’t think that level of transparency is the answer either.

      Im glad your work is receiving the attention it deserves, no matter how it happens! We had a post on the TP Instagram feed that reached 900 likes (the most I think we’ve ever gotten on a photo). What is odd is that we only had around 1,000 followers at the time. While the original photographer received only 582 likes and he has over 5,000 followers. While there are many reasons this could have happened, it surely shows that what people see is skewed.

      If nothing else it only shows how meaningless the whole follow / like count really is!

      Thanks for the great comment!

  8. I saw this first through avanaut. Moving the tags out of comments fixes it.

    I think the main reason for this is so people can’t just put a hashtag in the comments and all of the sudden your image is placed in that hashtag. Only you can post in the main area and this helps curb your photo from being tagged with all sorts of random tags by spam bots. It’s a way to crack down on spam.

    I find I get way more illogical and “junk” comments on Google+ than Instagram and I think Instagram has done a better job to combat it. That being said – Google+ does seem to be a better platform to grow an audience on at the moment. Plus I know facebooks model is to charge content creators where googles model has always been to charge the content consumers and reward the creators. So I definitely agree more with google than FB, but at the same time google is also a huge corporation with an end goal of moneymaking.

    I think the best option is to create your own personal photoblog. There used to be a huge photo logging community before social media. The big corpirations decided they could be the platform for all of it – they saw an opportunity to be the middle man. That’s the main reason why I started my own self hosted wordpress blog – at least I have control over more of the flow of content and engagement to an extent. I still have to deal with the gated search engines and that is why I still use social media.

  9. Joe,

    Thanks of joining the conversation. I’m going to try to tackle each point individually.

    Yes putting tags in your original post, not comments does the trick. In the past, you were the only now who could add your image to a hashtag group, even if someone put it in your comments. They instigated that change several years back. I don’t see how limiting a persons posts to only people who follow them would somehow eliminate spam. Also IG was built on the idea of hashtags being used as a way for your work to be organically discovered. IG has moved so far away from that idea it is now something completely different, and frankly I don’t know what that is.

    I guess you haven’t heard of me refer to G+ as my benevolent overlords have you? It’s a case of picking your poison. If you’re going to grow your audience it certainly more worth while to work with a major corporation that at least pays lip service to supporting the creators than charging them for every little post. As far as the junk comments go, the spam problem they are working on. What platform isn’t? If it bothers you, change your profile to accept comments only from people who are in your circles or extended circles. That way only people who you follow can comment on your posts. Ive grown used to it. I eliminate the junk, block the truly awful ones and report the spam. I have to say, that people are getting the message and I see less of it.

    While I agree that it is good to have a home base, your own website, your own blog, there is no guarantee in the future that these will not be pay for play in the future. Net neutrality may become a distant memory and we will have to deal with those changes when they come.

    Lets face the facts, being a creative in this on line social media world sucks and the cards are stacked against us every way we turn. All we can do is forge ahead and make connections with our audience as best as we can. There are not ‘perfect’ solutions out there.

    Best of luck to you in your own quest!


  10. Shelly,

    I wasn’t trying to be a cynic. I do think the G+ community that you have been building is such an awesome place. I like the discussion that goes on in the toy photography community as well as other communities. I love sharing my work and seeing others work easily organized and findable – if that’s a word.

    I’ll keep using social media as long as the frustrations do not outweigh the benefits.🙂🙌

    The problems with hashtags are all the folks tagging an image that has nothing to do with the categories. I think that’s what has caused Instagram to change so much. Look up landscape and you get more selfies than anything else…

    • Joe, You may not be a cynic, but I am. We are all frustrated by what has happened on IG. When I get on that platform, I’m shown photos from four days ago. So much for the Insta in Instagram! Im glad you’re enjoying the G+ community, its not perfect, but its a small corner of the internet to share information and connect on a slightly more personal level. What more can we ask for? Thanks for being a part of our community. Shelly

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