You’ve heard the rumors, the whispers, the scary stories told by firelight.
Watch out or it could happen to you,” they say.
“It will appear when you least expect it and heartlessly snatch your likes in the night.”
Some say the Instagram shadowban is just a figment of our collective imagination. Like the Boogeyman of the social media world, it’s merely a myth told to young ‘grammers to terrify us into behaving and minding our hashtags.
Others say they’ve seen it with their very own eyes and lived through the horror. You wake up one day and your likes are gone, you’ve disappeared from all your well-worn hashtags, no one can find or discover you; it’s like you never existed.
I know because I’ve been there. See, I’m no stranger to shadowbans. In fact, I’ve survived them and lived to tell the tale.
When the shadowban happened to me, it was a day like any other day. I got up, took a morning snap, rustled up some hashtags, and went on my merry way.
A few minutes later, I knew something was horribly wrong. No likes. No comments. Nothing. It was as if I had never posted anything at all. With nimble fingers and fear in my eyes, I frantically tore down my first post of the day and tried again. “M-m-m-aybe there was something wrong with the original post.” I whispered breathlessly to myself, “Maybe it’s a glitch.” I re-posted, holding fiercely to the hope that I’d be spared the wrath of the shadowban.
Again, my post sat untouched. Minutes passed. Not a like came my way. “This can’t be happening,” I yelped, logging into my personal account and unliking myself. Then, one by one, I checked my favorite hashtags as a scream welled up in my throat.
Gone. All gone. I was nowhere to be found. The shadowban had swallowed me whole and there was no defense. My account was but a memory.
Shaking in your #boots? I know. It’s enough to rattle even the grittiest of ‘grammers. But before you run screaming from this post, let me break down what we know about the Instagram shadowban, and why I’m not letting it scare me anymore, starting with the frequently asked questions:
What is a shadowban?
A shadowban, also known as a “stealth ban” is when a social platform limits your account activity without formally banning you. On Instagram, a shadowban means you can’t be easily discovered by new followers. Your posts only appear in the hashtag feeds of people who already follow your account, limiting your reach with new people.
Will Instagram notify me of my shadowban?
Nope. This is part of why it’s called a “shadowban.” It happens silently like a thief in the night. No word, no warning, just the eerie feeling that something is amiss.
How do I know if I’ve been shadowbanned?
The only way to know is by checking your account from a secondary account that doesn’t follow you. In my case, I verified my shadowban by logging into my personal account, unfollowing my business account, and then checking the hashtags feeds where I normally appear. I have a few branded hashtags that only I use and, sure enough, none of my posts appeared there! Remember, you will still appear in the hashtag feeds for people that follow you, so the only way to know you’ve been shadowbanned is to check from an account that doesn’t follow you. Oh, and skip the Shadowban Testers. They’ve been de-bunked.
What causes a shadowban?
Because Instagram has yet to formally speak on the matter, all we can do is speculate about what causes a shadowban. But we’ve got a pretty good idea of the activities that could put your account in hot water:
- Bots or auto-posting software: any app that seems too good to be true probably is
- Surges of activity: too many likes, comments, or follows in a short span of time.
- Using banned hashtags: the list is long and ridiculous but use these hashtags and you could be in Insta jail
- Repeating the same hashtags every day: keep it fresh or pay the price
- Being reported by another user: Insta doesn’t take kindly to accounts flagged as spammy, pornographic, or abusive by other users
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’m going to turn this scary story into a heartwarming tale of daring to dream, overcoming adversity, and defying the odds. (Okay, maybe I oversold it just a stitch.) But what I’m trying to say here is, a shadowban doesn’t have to be the death of your Instagram. And there’s a happy ending in all of this if you’ll hear me out.
In the wake of my own shadowban, I went through all the normal stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The Instagram I had come to know and love was no more. I was living in a new normal. And, once I embraced this new status quo, things started to turn around for me. Here’s what I discovered:
Hashtags give us a false sense of engagement
Instagram as I knew it had become one of my favorite places to get quick, easy, social media validation. Where else can you post something and immediately be gratified with likes from total strangers? Use the right hashtags and you could be looking at a few dozen likes in just a few minutes, a few hundred in just a few hours.
But, for a business ‘grammer like me, how much of that engagement converts into meaningful relationships? How many of those likes become leads? As it turns out, not too many. Instagram had me hooked on the temporary high of quick ‘n’ dirty likes. But that’s all it was, a temporary fix that left me with a headache and not much else.
Sure, in the wild wild west of the worldwide web, it can be soothing and gratifying to feel like someone is listening. And Instagram is good at giving us that impression. But, when you strip away the bots and the hashtag groupies just looking for likes of their own, what you’re left with is just a hollow shell that somewhat resembles engagement, but is nothing more than straight up Insta vanity.
Social media is most valuable when you’re being social
So, if you can’t rely on hashtags to expand your reach and get you found by new people, how can you continue to grow your Instagram? Simple. Be social.
I can hear you groan. “But RKA! I don’t want to actually interact with people on Instagram. I just want to throw up some tags and go!” #sorrynotsorry, if your go-to Insta move is the “hashtag and run,” not only are you lulling yourself into a false sense of engagement, you’re defeating the purpose of social media to begin with.
Social media is meant to be social; it allows us to gather with people from across the planet around common interests, beliefs, goals, and passions. And while some of us may use this tool as a megaphone, the most meaningful results always come when you are meaningfully engaged. If you’re phoning it in (or in this case, hashtagging it in) you can expect little more than superficial results.
A shadowban doesn’t have to mean your account stops growing. When hashtags are off the menu, the best way to continue building your Instagram is to seek out accounts that align with your values and meaningfully participate in the conversations they’ve already got going. This means reading captions, writing comments from the heart, and continuing to re-engage over time.
Yes, this takes more time than the “hashtag and run” but the payoff is results. Followers gained by way of meaningful engagement are more likely to remember you, pay attention to your posts, and keep the relationship going with you over time. And, when all is said and done, aren’t those the goals of social media for business? We want people to know who we are, remember us, and pay attention to what we’re saying. And hashtags or no hashtags, there’s simply no better way to accomplish meaningful engagement like this than to show our audience that we care about what they’re saying, too!
Stop scamming and start storytelling
Instagram itself refuses to acknowledge the shadowban. Earlier this year, they issued a statement in which they dodged the topic of bans entirely and instead emphasized the importance of storytelling and focusing on your overall business objective instead of hashtags.
At first blush, this is a frustrating non-answer on Instagram’s part. But, as I processed the denial, anger, and bargaining that came along with my shadowban grief, I eventually came to accept how true this non-answer really was.
We already know that one surefire way to trigger a shadowban is to try and trick our way to a bigger following. We also know that, when Instagram ditched real-time and switched to an algorithm-driven feed, posts are most likely to get seen if they’re garnering genuine engagement. And, finally, we don’t know know, but we have reason to believe that Instagram is playing with new photo recognition technology that will make the tool less hashtag-reliant and more about great content. In other words, hashtagging your way to success will soon be a thing of the past.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. It already happened with search results on Google. Once upon a time you used to be able to load up on keywords and easily get found in search, even if your content was flaming garbage in digital form. Google got wise to this and adjusted their algorithm. Now, you can longer keyword stuff your way to better SEO. The key to being found is creating content that is useful to searchers. And, how does Google judge that? Engagement, social shares, comments, inbound links, etc. Once the only way to get eyes on your content, keywords are now only one small part of the puzzle.
And this is ultimately why the shadowban was the best thing to happen to my Instagram.
It forced me to stop relying on the cheap thrill of hashtag-driven likes and instead focus on meaningfully engaging with new accounts and nurturing my existing followers with killer content. And guess what? Even under a shadowban, my account kept growing. And each new follower I gained was more engaged than ever before. I am grateful to the shadowban for helping me to re-align my social priorities away from vanity metrics and towards a social presence that actually brought value to my audience.
So, if you’re shadowbanned, I urge you not to try to game your way back to good standing. (Trust me, I’ve tried every trick in the book and the only way to cure a shadowban is with patience.) Instead, focusing on bringing your A game to each and every post, finding new accounts that align with your values, and engaging meaningfully and authentically each and every day. I bet you’ll find the shadowban was the best thing to happen to your ‘gram since stories.