Instafame: Retaining Followers Among Digital Natives on Instagram
This is just an old qualitative communication research paper I hope to eventually convert over to something more editorial in nature.
I will add edits as social media is constantly evolving.
- Enjoy!


The evolution of modern technology is fast paced to the point that it evokes a sense of urgency- get with the times or be left socially handicapped. Generation Z understands this concept. This generation has been reported to have the greatest amount of smartphone usage. The latest means of communication of identity is through social media. Platforms like Instagram are optimum for the visual centric Generation Z. Instagram is a photo-based social media app that allows people to communicate by following each other’s profiles. Users who accumulate a substantial following are identified as Instafamous. Based on the notion that it’s hard to get to the top, but even harder to stay there, the question of how these Instafamous personalities obtain and maintain their followers arose. Through qualitative research procedures, I conducted a study satisfy this curiosity. Interviews with Instagram users who possess a substantial following allowed for data collection and analyzation. The findings are as follows- Instagram users retain followers through projected consistency and social engagement both on the app and in real life. Combined with self monitored content manipulation, Instafamous people are able to stay at the top of their game by maintaining substantial and consistently growing following.


In the last century, social network applications have taken an increasingly stronger foothold in the role they play in people’s lives, impacting how we form interpersonal connections. The increased presence and popularity of social network apps can be attributed to the binary relationship between advancements in handheld technology and an increased need for “live updates.” The availability of smartphones have made social network and an increased need for events and milestones to be shared in “live time,” social network usage has greatly evolved. From the early days of MySpace and Friendster, to more user friendly Facebook, and now visual-centric Instagram and Snapchat.

Based on recent studies on overall social media usage in relation to age within the United States, individuals hailing from Generation Z which is defined as people ages 1–20 are more likely to use social media that is photo and video based. Generation Z is the first group of digital natives, meaning they have been raised alongside the internet and often with technology in their hands from birth. Being raised as a digital native is a new concept that has been subject to much criticism. Onlookers of Generation Z often believe this generation will excel in technology and media usage, but at a cost. Outsiders to the generation of digital natives have been raised with a greater exposure to nature with a dominantly secondhand understanding of technology and social media. These outsiders criticize the digital native age group by holding the position that growing up with significantly less exposure to nature stunts that person’s ability to communicate with people in person.

However, I disagree with the generation prior. In a society that is constantly evolving, and seems to be increasingly more media centric with improvements in technology, why not embrace the new age? Just as animal species have evolved to fit the ever-changing environment to avoid facing extinction, we have done the same. Digital natives are people who were given technology as a means of communication, and have worked with technology and social media to form a new method of communicating. The Baby Boomers (ages 47–65) and Generation X (ages 35–46) adopted phone calls and later emails as a main method of communication. Followed by Millennials, or Generation Y (ages roughly 20–34) who grew up maintaining email skills, adopting text messaging as their primary form of communication, and partially losing phone calls. This evolution of communication via technology is continuously evolving, and the next step is found in Generation Z.

The newest generation of technology savvy individuals arguably combines “old school” face to face communication with “new school” digital technology by using photos and videos in live time or close to it to sustain communication with others. I think Generation Z actually has a high potential of improving their interpersonal communication skills by using visuals to their advantage. Photos and allow users to share their emotions more accurately than a text message or email could allow. Even better, videos users can combine the visuals of emotions with sound to portray a multi-faceted representation of one’s current mood. By sharing emotions alongside the storytelling nature of captions on social media posts, Generation Z may be the most transparent emotionally thus far in projecting their identity to others.

Alternatively, portrayed identity may not be accurate to that user’s actual identity. This is the drawback of social media. The possibility of “catfishing” is higher than ever. I would argue that with an increased amount of digital natives, the ability of those users to identify fraudulent users is higher, therefore supporting a greater social media IQ than previous generations.

Among each generation, there is a dominant social media platform that prevails. Generation Z seems to have adopted Instagram and Snapchat as the two primary social media networks. Both Instagram and Snapchat are social media platforms that are dominantly used on handheld devices with cameras through applications rather than websites. The luxury of live time updates and user availability is an asset Generation Z has grown up with that other generations haven’t. After consideration between the two applications, I came to the conclusion that Instagram would be more desirable for this study. When talking to digital natives about social media usage, it was consistently stated that if someone wanted to create an interpersonal connection with another person, they would first go to Instagram to get to know that person, before deciding whether or not to move on to Snapchat to engage in one on one conversation. I found the usage of Instagram as a means of understanding identity as particularly enticing. Instagram was also reported as the most current form of self-promotion on a social and business level, whereas Snapchat was not.

Instagram is a photo sharing app, and the latest trending social network on the market. As stated prior, the application’s success can be attributed to the increased popularity of photo based social media among younger users. Similar to other social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram is follower based where users can “follow” other users in order to view more of their information and profile content. I found that Instagram users often value their amount of followers, and desire to accumulate a large number of followers for popularity and networking purposes. There is much literature on why people desire high rates of followers on social media, often relating user interaction to narcissism, loneliness, and self-satisfaction (Sheldon, 2016). Considering most questions about why people desire a large following and how to obtain followers have been answered through other studies, I decided to look into the alternative aspect of how users maintain the following they have already accumulated.

User retention is important on the social and business level of social media marketing. Individuals who market themselves desire to maintain the followers they have worked for, just as how businesses strive to maintain their following. Preliminary conversation with social Instagram users showed me that figuring out how to maintain followers is a practice not fully understood. The common problem seemed to be that users did not know what they were doing to lose users in the first place. Casual Instagram users often maintained the position that as long as their overall following did not decrease, it did not matter if they were losing followers as long as they were gaining new followers to compensate for that loss. This outlook seemed to follow the “out with the old, in with the new” concept. Users reported that they would be interested in understanding what they were doing to lose followers, but they were not overly concerned.

The phenomenon of Instagram fame combined with the limited knowledge of follower retention led me to conduct the qualitative study on Instagram follower retention rates. I wanted to understand exactly how users who possess a large following maintain that following, and specifically whether or not they have certain techniques that allow them to keep the followers they have, rather than or in addition to gaining more.

Literature Review

To begin the research process an introduction of the social media platform, Instagram was conducted through a series of statistics and scholarly articles. An investigation of Instagram and social media statistics on data, growth, and demographics was conducted to form an accurate list of qualities desired in respondents.

Throughout this process, it is important to note that social media statistics are constantly changing, so statistics from 2015 and prior may not be an entirely accurate representation of the data. Statistics on Instagram from 2016–2017 are the desired target range, but older statistics are still included when updated statistics are not yet available.

With over 700,000 monthly active users this year, Instagram is leading the race as the fastest growing social media platform (Aslam, 2017). The rapid growth of Instagram can be attributed to the combination of increased smartphone usage, and an increased use of communication via images among teenagers. First, it is important to point out that although Instagram offers a computer based website, full features of the platform are only available through the app on a smartphone or tablet. With this knowledge, I determined the target sample of this study should possess the proper technology to access the application in order to access all functions of the platform.

Lenhart (2015) identifies that Facebook still remains the leading form of social media among teenagers in the US, but also points out that teens from more affluent households reported a greater usage of Instagram, followed by Snapchat. This is further supported by Lenhart’s data that affluent teenagers are more likely to possess smartphones, which in turn increases Instagram engagement due to the asset of a readily available high quality camera (Smith, 2017). Instagram users are typically younger on average with over 36% of US teens using Instagram as their primary form of social media among people ages 18–35 in 2016. The overall popularity of Instagram among teenagers can be further supported by the claim that “Generation Z” which is loosely defined as individuals ranging from 1 to 20 years of age, are more likely to communicate with images than any other generation (Meeker, 2016). Instagram defines itself as,

“… a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever.” (Instagram, 2017)

The description directly encourages users to take photos, and assumes the user has a mobile phone, further indicating the platform is a photo and application based service. With this knowledge, I was able to conclude that optimum respondents for this study should hail from the late portion of the Generation Z age range.

After continued research on Instagram usage by gender, I determined it would be best to narrow the pool or respondents down further by interviewing females only. Multiple sources indicated that Instagram usage has been dominated by females since the creation of the app. Visually based social media among teenagers in general is favored by females over males on a nationally representative sample (Lenhart, 2015). The most recent statistics show that 68% of all Instagram users identify as female. (Aslam 2017)

It is important to note that a frequent sentiment of Instagram usage touches on the concept of quality over quantity. Smith (2014) indicates that “Instagram accounts for 7% of daily photo uploads among the top four photo-sharing platforms.” Considering their consistently increasing amount of users, one would assume Instagram would hold a larger daily upload percent. However, Hu (2014) reveals that the prerogative of an Instagram post is to produce a high quality photo along with an equally high quality caption to generate more likes per photo. Quality of a photo is defined as whether or not the photo is framed in an aesthetically pleasing manner, which can be related to the rule of thirds and golden ratio but does not necessarily have to follow that guideline (Hu, 2014) A quality Instagram photo is also identified by the resolution of the picture itself. Photos with certain lighting qualities that allow the viewer to clearly identify the subject of the image are also deemed “high quality photos” (McCune, 2011). This can most likely be attributed to ease of use by the viewer since the platform involves a scrolling action that encourages viewers to look through posts in a vertically rolling manner. The notion of quality over quantity is supported by Jang (2015) though a study on comparative characteristics in Instagram.

User engagement in all aspects of Instagram’s services are higher in teenagers than adults (Jang, 2015). Teenagers who use Instagram share less photos than adults, but engage in all other features of the photo sharing service more frequently than adults across the board. The amount of likes, tags, and comments are all higher in teen Instagram activity than adults (Jang, 2015). Findings from this study concluded an increased amount of active platform engagement among teenagers on Instagram. Interestingly, further research found that teenagers were more likely to manipulate their shared content as well. Meaning that teenagers are more likely to delete content. These findings were related back to self-representation on social media (Jang, 2015). The researchers did not proceed further with this study, and indicated in their discussion and conclusion that a qualitative study would possibly answer some of their questions on increased teen user engagement and decreased photo posting (Jang, 2015).

One aspect of the comparative characteristic study by Jang touched on the use of selfies by teenagers compared to adults. Research findings concluded that teens post over double the amount of selfies than adults (Jang, 2015). This comparative analysis led to a separate in-depth look at the use of selfies on Instagram, and how they are received and interpreted. Preliminary findings brought the theme of self-representation back into play, and suggested a direct relationship between selfies and projected mood (Jang, 2015). However, Marwick (2015) suggests selfie portraiture is all about attention seeking, and related to the desire for direct feedback on appearance and perception.

The notion that selfies play a significant role in social media among teens is further supported by findings from Bakhshi (2014). This study reported that photos with faces in general were more likely to attract more likes and comments on Instagram than any other photo type. The base conclusion was that faces engage us regardless of age or gender (Bakhshi, 2014). I think it is important to note that photos with faces on Instagram receive more user activity because it supports the notion that identity plays a role in user engagement. The conclusion that age and gender do not impact user engagement is also useful in this study. This knowledge helps rule out the potential limitation that my narrow sample group is too exclusive. The primary setback of this study is that it studies Instagram photos with faces, not selfies alone. Bakhshi’s (2014) findings prove a correlation between photos with faces and increased user engagement, but since it is not specifically looking at selfies, the data cannot be interpreted as directly related to Jang’s (2015) findings.

As Instagram usage has increased, terms like “Instafamous” have surfaced to identify individuals who have accumulated a substantial following (Marwick, 2015). Instafame can be described as any Instagram user who has gained a substantial amount of followers. This term according to Marwick is pretty broad because it includes people who were famous before Instagram. Celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner are instafamous because they are famous in general. For the purposes of this study, I chose to narrow the definition of instafamous to only include people who obtained their stardom via Instagram. These individuals are people who have accumulated a following of people based on their Instagram as the main catalyst.

R1: Do Instafamous users retain the users they have already accumulated? Or do they simply try to maintain the following quota they have?

R2: If so, what techniques do these users find successful in retaining or gaining followers?

Methods and Procedure

Considering the relative newness of Instagram as a social network, prior knowledge of Instagram follower retention rates was non-existent. This led me to the conclusion that a qualitative approach to the topic would be ideal. There were no prior grounds available to even form a hypothesis for phenomenological Instagram follower rates in relation to Instafame. Performing a qualitative study gave me the opportunity to take the research to a deeper level with the respondents, a quality I do not believe would have been possible if a quantitative study was distributed. Additionally, by studying the phenomenon of Instagram fame qualitatively, I was also able to follow up with respondents as more data was collected.

Phenomenological procedures were used in this study due to the premature identification of Instagram fame as a phenomenon. The fact that seemingly common or average young adults could gain a substantial amount of followers without monetary aid was identified as a phenomenon by Marwick (2015). Although it is possible to purchase followers in order to gain Instagram fame, none of the respondents for this study reported spending money to increase followers. Creswell (2013) identifies a phenomenological study as “a study [that] describes the common meaning for several individuals of their lived experiences of a concept or a phenomenon.”

As a researcher my role was to gather information, analyze, and interpret it in order to gain a better understanding of my phenomenon. This is usually done through interviewing and is the only way of knowing the truth, pending respondents answer void of deceit. In order to begin my phenomenology I used a convenience sampling technique to acquire people who would be willing to partake in an interview. Instafamous people are often famous based on their lifestyle or advanced skills in a particular category such as makeup.

Reaching out to potential people to participate in the study was an interesting experience. I decided to reach out to Instagram users who provided their email addresses in their “description” of their profiles. I assumed that if they were providing their email in such a deliberate public manner, then these users wanted people to contact them. The email was a basic introductory email that described the study, and what an interview would entail- about one hour long of semi-formal conversation either in person, video chat, or over the phone. I received responses from the majority of these users saying they would be interested in participating in the study. After that, I would send them a follow up email asking them when a good time to meet would be, and that is where I would hit a wall. Although these users would respond promptly the first time, only 2 out of 43 people followed up on the second email. This forced me to alter the way I would find possible respondents.

As an Instagram user, I scrolled through my followers until I found two instafamous people I knew personally. I determined that only one of them was an optimum candidate for the study because the other user hadn’t been active on their account for almost a year. The first respondent was a friend of a family member and through a series of text messages, she agreed to meet. This respondent then gave me the phone numbers of two other respondents who brought along their friends, and before I knew it, I had 10 interviews. In total there were 12 respondents. The majority of these respondents were found through that initial web of networking. The remaining respondents were people I knew personally. This sampling technique is defined as the snowball sampling technique because the sample started out with one person and expanded from there.

I contacted all of the respondents through text message, and then interviewed them in person. This technique gave me a way to keep in touch with the participants if I needed to ask more questions. I decided to use a semi-formal type of interviewing because I thought it would be a more efficient way of retrieving information. All of the respondents were females with a ¾ or greater majority of followers. The respondents were between the ages of 17 and 21 and coincidentally all attended community college.

I attempted to make the respondents as comfortable as possible so that the interview would flow more like a conversation. The interviews were relaxed, and the respondents did not seem uncomfortable. I would assume this is due to the fact that we conversed through text message first so they had an opportunity to gather that I was not a threat. Also, I was close in age and the same gender as the respondents which might have also made them feel more comfortable. I went in depth with my questions by asking many open-ended questions that made them describe their experiences so that I could draw as much information possible and receive strong data. I also used some direct questions in order to get some clear cut answer as to how the leadership works on the team and to make my research a little more organized. All of my interviews were written down verbatim and bracketing was used in order to minimize judgment from the responder’s shared experiences.

Ethnographic research procedures were also applied to this study. An ethnographic study means the researcher is a participant observer within the group, immersing themselves in the culture in order to better understand the group (Creswell, 2013). As a 21 year old female who uses Instagram on a weekly basis at least, I was considered a partial participant observer. Since I do not have a significant amount of followers, I would not be considered a full participant, because I do not have first hand experience on what it is like to gather and maintain a substantial amount of Instagram followers. However, in the last six months, I have accumulated double the amount of followers than I previously had, so I still understood the process of fielding followers to a degree. Additionally, as someone who possesses an Instagram profile, I understand first hand how a user might form their social media identity.

Ethnographic studies also suggest interviewing verbatim, meaning copying the entire interview word for word, which I did throughout all of my interviews. During the interviews, I alternated between writing the interviews down by hand, and typing them as the respondent spoke. There was no particular reason why I alternated between handwritten and typed interviews, it was just dependent on whether or not a stable internet connection was available at the time and place of the interview. I do not believe this technique hindered the interview process in any way. The only potential drawback of this was that respondents couldn’t see what I was typing, but they could see what I was writing. This could have influenced how they answered the interview questions, but based on feedback, I do not think this played a substantial role.

I accomplished this by conducting hour long, in depth, informal interviews using open ended questions with respondents of the college. I used purposeful sampling in order to interview participants who I felt would provide the most insight to their experiences of Instagram usage and follower retention. I ensured the respondents knew they would remain anonymous, and gave each of them a pseudonym. By making the respondents aware that they would remain anonymous, I hoped to gain trust so they would be more inclined to share their experiences with me. This was something stressed in previous communication courses. In this study, the anonymity was particularly important because I was interviewing potentially well known Instafamous individuals. If their identity was compromised through this study, there would be a chance that the identified respondent and their social media presence would be negatively impacted.

While informing the respondents of the anonymity factor, an interesting aspect surfaced. The respondents who maintained public Instagram accounts did not see any reason to remain anonymous, because anything of importance to them was probably already out on social media for the world’s viewing pleasure. Whereas respondents who possessed private Instagram accounts were more satisfied with the anonymity factor.

My list of interview questions were open ended, allowing the respondents to interpret them as they saw fit. If the response was going in the direction of my phenomenon, I would follow up with more specific questions in order to gain a better understanding of their situation. By using follow up questions when necessary, I was able to be as thorough as possible during the interviews. Follow up questions did not arise often, but were prominent among the first few respondents I interviewed. These follow up questions were fielded over text message, and the respondents answered the follow up questions thoroughly and with great detail. Considering they had already met me in person, they felt more comfortable responding over text message when presented with follow up questions.

Additionally, I used the bracketing method in order to eliminate my assumptions about the research. Bracketing my assumptions entailed taking what I know as a participant observer, and setting aside any preconceived notions about the research topic at hand. I found this to be of great importance throughout the study, but particularly imperative in two main sections- interviews and discussion. During the interviews, it was important to bracket my assumptions so I would field questions without using prior biased knowledge that could potentially sway the questions in one direction or another. For example, I didn’t use my personal Instagram user experiences to influence which questions I asked because my experiences as a partial participant observer from Generation Y might not be the same as the experiences of the respondents. It was also particularly important to bracket my assumptions during the discussion portion to provide an unbiased interpretation of the phenomenon of Instafame.

The constant comparison method was used to analyze the data. Throughout the interview collection process I continued to sort, and re-sort the data in order to find common themes for further analysis (Creswell, 2013). By using the constant comparison method, I was also able to determine when I had gathered enough interviews to begin forming themes. When the data began to repeat itself, it became evident that there wouldn’t be a need to gather more interviews. The constant comparison method also allowed me to identify some themes as not necessarily relevant to answering the research question. Often I would encounter interesting themes in the data that seemed like decent leads to answering the research question, but through resorting the data I would determine that some of those themes were not strong enough or did not apply to the research question accurately.

I then applied grounded theory to the data in order to develop my theory. Grounded theory is used by developing the theory based off of the research and themes that emerge through the constant comparison method (Creswell, 2013). Through grounded theory, I was able to use the relationships between the themes to develop a sound theory on Instafame and follower retention rates, while also forming a solid conclusion.

Data Analysis

Instagram follower rates are influenced by three main categories- projected consistency, social engagement, and content manipulation. The data showed a direct relationship between follower retention and consistency of posts and user identity. Aside from attempting to keep the followers they already had, all respondents identified social engagement as the method of gathering new followers. Projected consistency and social engagement were divided among two subcategories of mechanical (in-app interactions) and social (in-person interactions). Combining high levels of follower retention with consistently new followers per week led to the retention of the respondent’s three-fourths to one-fourth follower to following ratio.

Projected Consistency

The theme, projected consistency reflects two different aspects of the user’s interactions with the social media platform. Respondents inferred that most of their followers seek consistency in an Instagram personality. Social media dependability is imperative in a society full of creatures of habit. Through the data, the buzz phrases, “keep it consistent” and “it’s gotta be quality” surfaced and resurfaced. The overall conclusion of respondents was that as long as their Instagram remained consistent overall, then they would be less likely to lose followers. This is based on the assumption by the respondents that users follow certain profiles for certain reasons, so if the respondent in question were to take away that reason, then the user would no longer have a reason to follow the respondent. The theme was deemed projected consistency because many of the respondents stressed that even if they were feeling differently from their Instagram posts, they would still project the same persona and post type to remain steadfast in their reliability and aesthetic. Projected consistency was then broken down into the two subcategories of mechanical (in-app) and social (in-person) interactions with Instagram and Instagram users.

The subsection of mechanical projected consistency entailed the physical consistency of posts within the app. Respondents defined their mechanical consistency in a variety of ways, but all concluded that posting at least once a week assisted them in maintaining followers. One of the respondents had recently strayed from the informal one week rule, and pulled up her profile to report the consequences stating,

“I’ve just been busy lately and forgot to post last week. I always thought the ‘one week rule’ was just some dumb guideline made popular by the app itself, but since I haven’t posted in two weeks, I’ve lost so many followers plus I haven’t gained many either.”

This respondent reported that she hadn’t used social media at all in the last two weeks which plays into the other theme of social engagement. Going off the social media grid for even fourteen days resulted in a substantial loss of followers. She attributed this to the concept of out of sight out of mind, and stressed that the rapid decrease of followers was a clear indication that she needed to get back to consistently posting if she wanted to keep her Instafamous persona and the followers she had left.

After this interview I reached out to a separate respondent who I knew personally for becoming Instafamous within a six month span, and who lost her fame once she stopped using that Instagram account. This respondent reported similar findings in the mass exodus of followers that ensued as her social media usage dwindled. Thus, the stress to consistently post along the one week guideline was reaffirmed.

The respondents also identified that if they attended a large well known event, that keeping their posts current and posting a photo that day at that event would sustain and increase followers. Specifically if they used all tagging aspects of the app- tagging people or brands in the content, hashtagging trending buzzwords, and tagging the most well known location. All of the respondents were from the Maryland area, so they often attended the same events. The respondents reported that consistently posting along with current events gained and maintained followers. Their interpretation was that their followers would continue to follow them because by engaging in current events, they were projected as current too.

Mechanical projected consistency was also defined as posting a variety of content with a common aesthetic theme. One respondent said her following is partially based on the aesthetic of the photos she posts. The content could range from a selfie to her car or maybe a place she recently visited, but every photo would be posted in black and white. This respondent stressed that per projected consistency of black and white photography was important to maintaining her following of people who desired to view black and white photos. She described one time she posted a photo in color,

“I once wanted to post a color photo just to try it. I was feeling upbeat that day and I thought a photo in color would show that better. When I posted it, I got a lot of mean comments, but also people started unfollowing me really fast, so I took the photo down. I wanted the mean comments to stop, but I also didn’t want to keep losing followers over one stupid photo.”

Straying from that aesthetic resulted in another exodus of followers. This respondent was not the only user to report a substantial decrease on followers if one strayed from the projected aesthetic.

This led to the other subsection within projected consistency which can be defined as social projected consistency. The concept of this sub theme was that a projected consistency of identity was related to retaining the user’s following. Other respondents also stressed that if they were going to post a photo that ranged outside their Instagram persona, that it had to be “worth it.” For example, one of the respondents gained her following as a young and attractive party girl. Since her rise to Instafame, she has settled down more with increased maturity, and has been in a long term relationship. For the purposes of her Instagram aesthetic, she continues to post mostly pictures with other girls while out on the town. But every now and then she will post a photo with her boyfriend to commemorate a milestone in their relationship. She identified that the photos with her boyfriend not only received significantly less likes, but also resulted in a loss of male followers who may have been under the impression that she was single. This respondent claimed that since her boyfriend mattered more to her than her Instagram, she did not care if she lost followers over a post about him.

Social Engagement

The second theme to emerge from the data was social engagement. This followed the concept of what users put in, they would get out of their use of the app. Social engagement was also split by the subcategories of mechanical and social. All of the respondents hailed from Generation Z, a generation of digital natives. Based on my knowledge of digital natives, I gathered that the respondents would most likely understand all aspects of Instagram and it’s features, thus resulting in a richer social media experience. Through the data, my preliminary educated guess was correct, and the theme of platform engagement as the mechanical subcategory emerged. Platform engagement can be defined as how the user interacts with the application. Instagram has many interactive features that allow self reporting as well as user feedback to other profiles. Self reporting is found in the tagging features of the app, while liking and commenting facilitate user feedback. Both self reporting and user feedback are forms of media currency.

Respondents identified platform engagement as how they maintain and acquire new followers. By consistently using Instagram and all of it’s functions, the user gets more exposure without spending any money to do so. Instagram has an algorithm that pushes certain profile handles to the front display of comments and likes that allows that person to gain even more exposure. If a user already possesses a substantial amount of followers, then they are more likely to be seen by other users through the algorithm. However, the only way for their handle to be pushed to the front is by liking and commenting on other profiles. If the user doesn’t engage in the basics of liking and commenting, then there is no profile for the algorithm to present to other users. The algorithm allows certain users to gain followers by becoming more “discoverable” while the actual practice of liking and tagging shows other users that the profile in question is an active user, and therefore “worth the follow.” Respondents reported that they were less likely to follow someone if that person wasn’t active on Instagram because it would mean they had a “dead follower” who was just a number on the list of followers, but didn’t actively or consistently contribute to the stardom of the Instafamous person by liking or commenting. Conversely, the respondents didn’t want their followers to interpret them as “dead followers” either, which is why even the Instafamous users continued to engage in the application.

Platform engagement is also seen in tagging. As stated previously, Instagram allows users to tag people, location, and words. Tagging on Instagram was identified by respondents as a supplementary method of gaining followers rather than sustaining them. The act of tagging also related back to discoverability. This was most accurately described by a respondent in her rationale for tagging content,

“I try to post pictures with different people I meet. Once this other Instafamous girl and I took a photo together and posted and tagged each other on our own profiles. Within that day, I gained a bunch of her followers and she gained a bunch of mine. I do this when I can because it is an easy way to boost followers and everyone wins.”

The respondent was explaining that by tagging and being tagged simultaneously by another user, there was an immediate increase in followers because they both increased their discoverability to untapped audiences. Instagram provides tagging features for this reason- networking to increase one’s digital reach.

The alternative aspect to platform engagement was social or in-person platform engagement. For the most part, the findings of this study weren’t very surprising to me. Possibly due to the fact that I was a participant observer. However, this theme was something I wasn’t expecting, and can only attribute to a generational gap. Over half of the respondents reported gaining followers through face to face interactions. This form of self promotion was more prominent among the younger people of the sample. The youngest respondent of the group stated, “if I meet someone I want to get to know better, we will exchange Instagrams and Snapchats before exchanging phone numbers.” Befriending someone in real life, and then continuing that relationship through social media seems to be the next step in the evolution of interpersonal communication. Furthermore, respondents who engaged in this face to face platform engagement pointed out that they were expanding their networks beyond the one friend they made in person, to that network of followers related to the initial user. I think it is quite perceptive of the respondents to recognize the opportunity for networking and social gain among a single face to face interaction.

Content Manipulation

The final theme to emerge from the data was content manipulation. This theme did not span across two subcategories, but remained a singular theme with multiple aspects. The term content manipulation refers to the user’s role in how they monitor and control the content of their personal profile. A user’s decision to keep their profile public or private is a form of content manipulation. The act of following and unfollowing other users, and removing photos from your profile are also forms of content manipulation.

Content manipulation to some degree was reported by all respondents. The decision to monitor one’s personal profile related back to a need for control among users. This theme had the most diversity in examples provided. Actively manipulating social media content was primarily driven by the user’s desire to maintain a particular projected aesthetic. Projected consistency and content manipulation worked in relation to each other when the user’s motive was identity driven.


BOLD = themes

BOLD ITALIC = subsections of themes



From the beginning, the most glaring limitation of this study is that social media platforms are constantly changing and evolving to fit the wants and needs of their consumers. Additional features to the application are offered monthly at the least which means that this study would never be quite up to date with the latest Instagram update. Conversely, the original goal of Instagram’s co-founders was to provide a photo-sharing app with a clean, easy to use interface. Keeping the original focus in mind, the application is also constantly taking away small touches and features that are deemed unnecessary

Other preliminary limitations included the group of respondents I chose to use. The sample overall was small with 12 participants. Furthermore, the sample was narrowed by the demographic of Instafamous late Generation Z female digital natives in community college. I did not intend on sampling from such a narrow focus. Although this more selective sample of respondents eliminates possible outliers, the themes and conclusions drawn from this study are partially related to the content of the sample. Meaning, it is possible that the conclusions on follower retention rates of this study could be vastly different from another study on the same subject with different sample.

Limitations seen in the research also emerged as I collected and analyzed interviews. Out of the 12 respondents, I only knew 4 of them personally. Interviews with the respondents who I had already established a rapport with from outside the study involved less awkward small-talk to gain trust because the trust had already been established. The majority of interviews were with respondents I did not know personally, but through a series of networking and web of acquaintances. There is a high chance these respondents did not feel as comfortable with me as respondents I knew personally. I understood where the respondents were coming from, and felt I could field questions better as a participant observer, but there is a change the respondents didn’t feel entirely comfortable with me as their peer. Although I made it evident that the interview was entirely anonymous, there was a chance they wouldn’t believe me as I am not a trained professional.

Being a participant observer both helps and hinders the study. While conducting the Literature Review, it was increasingly evident that many of the articles were not written by participant observers. Namely the comparative analysis work by Jang (2015). Many of the research questions Jang’s team encountered, I could already form an accurate educated guess for. Conversely, since I am a participant observer, there are aspects of Instagram that I may not question that an outsider to the application might point out.

All respondents for this study were US citizens. Considering Instagram is used globally, it is entirely possible that the findings of this study may not be the same for Instagram users outside the US. Further research on the same topic with a broader range of respondents would help to alleviate this limitation.

Future Research

If this study were to be continued in the future, I would suggest two main changes to the research procedures. The first being to expand the group of respondents to go beyond the narrow sample size used in this study. There are various directions this could go. Perhaps the data would be different the sample was of Instafamous people outside of Generation Z. Alternatively, a sample taken from businesses exclusively may provide new and different insight into follower retention rates.

Also, I would suggest having a different or non-participant observer conduct the study. Having someone who is not a peer might expand the data as well. Through the literature review, I learned that researchers who were not participant observers often found new questions that I may not have recognized if I failed to bracket all of my assumptions. It is also possible that more eyes on the data might have identified themes I may have missed.

It would also be interesting to see the results of this particular study performed quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Perhaps new and different themes would emerge. I think the multi-faceted aspect of this study would make for a very in-depth quantitative research project that could reach a broader sample.

Throughout the study and especially within the constant comparison method, new themes emerged that didn’t quite fit into the final three themes derived. The themes that were weeded out would be interesting themes to take in a different direction in a separate study. Particularly, the dichotomy between public versus private users. Prior to this study, I did not put much thought or weight behind the choice of a public or private profile. However, through this study, I have gained an interest in understanding the motive behind profile security settings with a focus on Generation Z.

Preliminary investigations in literature reveal a relationship between profile security and information anxiety in previous generations. The minimum amount of available literature on public versus private profiles in digital natives brought a separate topic of Instagram usage to the surface, which can be identified as an increased need or desire for control among digital natives. Based on the interviews I collected, there were strong nods towards digital natives and alternative means of control. Respondents often identified their desire to know exactly what other users were doing. I believe there could be a shift in methods of gaining control among Generation Z to be more technology based, and conversely a shift in user anxiety from the unknown of strangers to the unknown of friends. This could be an interesting study all on its own, and given the time I would pursue gaining a deeper understanding of it.

Lastly, Instagram videos are so new that little research has been conducted on them. However statistics (Aslam 2017) point to an increase in user engagement. This is not directly linked to likes based on preliminary feedback from my sample and other reports. A study on video based user engagement and motives would complement research in the field of social media well.


The findings of this study conclude that in order to retain followers on Instagram, users should maintain an air of consistency to their followers. Maintaining consistency of post frequency and identity prevent a loss of followers. A two-fold system of social engagement in both the application and real life allows users to maintain followers. Social engagement also lets users increase their network and digital reach, allowing them to also gain followers. Last, content manipulation of the user’s profile retains followers from a secondhand standpoint by maintaining the aesthetic of the user. A healthy cocktail of these acts on Instagram retains the quota of followers a user possesses by keeping followers the user already has, and gathering new followers to replace lost followers or increase the overall amount.


Aslam, S. (2017, April 29). Instagram by the Numbers: Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from

Bakhshi, S., Shamma, D. A., & Gilbert, E. (2014, April). Faces engage us: Photos with faces attract more likes and comments on instagram. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 965–974). ACM.

Barry, C. T., Doucette, H., Loflin, D. C., Rivera-Hudson, N., & Herrington, L. L. (2017). “Let me take a selfie”: Associations between self-photography, narcissism, and self-esteem. Psychology of popular media culture, 6(1), 48.

Creswell, J.W. (2013) Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Dion, N. A. (2016). The Effect of Instagram on Self-Esteem and Life Satisfaction.

Ellison, Nicole B. “Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication 13.1 (2007): 210–230.

Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2014). A methodology for mapping Instagram hashtags. First Monday, 20(1).

Hochman, N., and Manovich, L. 2013. Zooming into an instagram city: Reading the local through social media. First Monday.

Hu, Y., Manikonda, L., & Kambhampati, S. (2014, June). What We Instagram: A First Analysis of Instagram Photo Content and User Types. In ICWSM.

Jang, J. Y., Han, K., Shih, P. C., & Lee, D. (2015, April). Generation like: comparative characteristics in Instagram. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 4039–4042). ACM.

Kolowitch, Lindsay (2016, June) 48 Instagram Stats That Will Help You Improve Your Posting Strategy. HubSpot, Inc. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from marketing/instagram-stats#sm.000sx0kqw1aqdfsmtag10nvyo302m

Lee, E., Lee, J. A., Moon, J. H., & Sung, Y. (2015). Pictures speak louder than words: Motivations for using Instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(9), 552–556.

Lenhart, A. (2015, April 08). Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from technology-2015/

Manovich, L. (2016). Notes on Instagrammism and mechanisms of contemporary cultural identity (and also photography, design, Kinfolk, k-pop, hashtags, mise-en-scène, and cостояние).[en línea]. Sl: Disponible en: http://manovich. net/index. php/projects/instagram-and-contemporary-image.

Marwick, A. E. (2015). Instafame: Luxury selfies in the attention economy. Public Culture, 27(1 75), 137–160.

Meeker, M. (n.d.). 2016 Internet Trends Report. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from

McCune, Z. 2011. Consumer production in social media networks : A case study of the instagram iphone app. Dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Moon, J. H., Lee, E., Lee, J. A., Choi, T. R., & Sung, Y. (2016). The role of narcissism in self-promotion on Instagram. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 22–25.

Pittman, M., & Reich, B. (2016). Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 155–167.

Sheldon, P., & Bryant, K. (2016). Instagram: Motives for its use and relationship to narcissism and contextual age. Computers in Human Behavior, 58, 89–97.

Silva, T. H.; Melo, P. O.; Almeida, J. M.; Salles, J.; and Loureiro, A. A. 2013. A picture of instagram is worth more than a thousand words: Workload characterization and application. In DCOSS. IEEE.

Smith, A. (2017, January 12). Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from 2017/01/12/evolution-of-technology/

Smith, C. “Instagram Demographics”. Business Insider. March 13, 2014. Retrieved June 10,2014, from

Souza, F., de Las Casas, D., Flores, V., Youn, S., Cha, M., Quercia, D., & Almeida, V. (2015, November). Dawn of the selfie era: The whos, wheres, and hows of selfies on Instagram. In Proceedings of the 2015 ACM on conference on online social networks (pp. 221–231). ACM.

Yang, C. C. (2016). Instagram use, loneliness, and social comparison orientation: interact and browse on social media, but don’t compare. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(12), 703–708.

Zappavigna, M. (2016). Social media photography: construing subjectivity in Instagram images. Visual Communication, 15(3), 271–292.

Zhu, Y. Q., & Chen, H. G. (2015). Social media and human need satisfaction: Implications for social media marketing. Business horizons, 58(3), 335–345.