Less Distraction for Instagram

A valuable companion app that should be approved to use the Instagram API but will never be

Recently I’ve created an application that’s going to fix Instagram and make it great again. Today I submitted it for approval to use the Instagram API.

Here I’m going to tell you why both Instagram and its users are going to benefit from my application, and why it’s not really going to be approved.

Spam on Instagram

Businesses and entrepreneurs have been exploring ways to advertise on Instagram long before paid advertising solutions were launched in 2015. While many businesses have focused on building strong communities and producing great content, many others decided to participate in “unwanted forms of commercial communications” which are strongly disapproved by the Terms of Use.

Wristwatch replicas, paid likes, and “essential things for comfortable life” (basically, food supplements)

These advertisers use their accounts as landing pages and that’s not a problem unless they want to attract traffic to them. When they do, you get familiar with all forms of spam: unwanted likes, unwanted subscriptions, and unwanted mentions in comments.

Each activity on this screen is either an unwanted subscription or an unwanted like

Unwanted notifications bloat your activity feed in the mobile app and steal your time if you pay attention to alerts and banners on your phone. At first, you curiously check them but then you either switch them off or learn to ignore them altogether, thus ruining your experience of the Instagram on your phone.

“When I use Instagram on my iPhone and go to the activity feed, I instantly switch to the ‘Following’ tab because there’s nothing more than spam at the ‘You’ tab,” my friend Ksenia Ilinyh says.

I can’t say I’m a heavy Instagram user — I enjoy it on my phone every day but rather to view content than to share. But one day I’ve got utterly annoyed by unwanted advertisers. Many friends and colleagues of mine said that they share the same experience and I’m not the only one who suffers.

So I decided to invent a solution.

Two clicks to spamless Instagram

I’ve created a web application that silently looks after your Instagram account and blocks all spammers which disturb you, e.g. like your media or follow your account. Blocked accounts are not visible in the mobile app, so you won’t even know they tried to distract you.

You just click two buttons: first to authorize the app, second to ask it to watch your account. That’s it. Have a look at this screencast:

We should thank Ksenia Ilinyh for this neat and concise design

Do you like it?

The application is smart enough to distinguish between normal and spam accounts with false positive and false negative error rates which are essentially equal to zero. It’s powered by a machine learning algorithm implemented with an artificial neural network. (If you’re curious what features it uses to classify accounts, have a look at Github.)

It’s available at less.igor.lukanin.name, but it’s not ready for production now.

As of November 17, 2015, Instagram introduced the mandatory permission review process for all apps. Until an application passes the review, it has limited access to the Instagram API.

So now you can connect your account and see your friends and other legitimate followers separated from spammers and bots. Unfortunately, the application can’t watch your account until Instagram allows it to.

Why Instagram will not approve my application

There are three reasons for that.

Instagram’s documentation states that there are only a few possible use cases for applications using its API:

  1. To help individuals share their own content with 3rd party apps
  2. To help brands and advertisers understand and manage their audience and digital media rights
  3. To help broadcasters and publishers discover content, get digital rights to media, and share media with proper attribution

My application targets individuals but doesn’t specifically help them share any content with 3rd party apps. It helps them to use Instagram as they like, getting less distraction and feeling happier.

Unfortunately, there’s no such use case in the above list. So I had to be untruthful submitting the application for review.

Moreover, Instagram’s Platform Policy says that an application shouldn’t use the API to manage Instagram relationships without their prior permission. And that’s just what my application does.

And there’s one more thing. The API docs for the relationship management endpoint doesn’t say anything about blocking accounts. You can easily google it — but once you use it, your application goes to the gray zone of private APIs and reverse engineering. Not great.

Why Instagram should approve my application

There are two reasons for that.

My application creates huge value for Instagram users by muting “unwanted forms of commercial communications” and fixing spam-induced UX flaws. I’ve talked to dozens of Instagram users and showed them how the app works (though with existing limitations). Every single one of them instantly wished that he or she could use it at the moment.

Also, my application helps Instagram to convert spammers to legitimate advertisers. Once it gains the reasonable audience, it would make the means for spam advertising less effective and thus less attractive to businesses and entrepreneurs.

Clear attributes of legitimate ads: sponsored label at the top, CTA button under the media, different comments layout

So what’s the point?

I’ve written this post to explain my reasons to create the application and to be completely transparent during the review process.

There’s a link to this post at less.igor.lukanin.name and I expect that anyone who’s going to review the application would be patient enough to read this. I honestly believe that the application can pass the review due to the value it creates for Instagram and its users, although it doesn’t necessarily comply with every letter of lengthy guidelines.

I’m going to update this post after the review is completed.

Update (April 21, 2016): Instagram has responded to my submission—the app is not approved because its use case doesn’t fall into a short list of cases allowed on the Instagram Platform.

It’s exactly what I should’ve expected but I’m not going to give up. I do want to defeat spam on Instagram and I do think that the value to many Instagram users should prevail over its policies.

As the next step, I’m going to write an open letter to Kevin Weil, Head of Product at Instagram. If you want to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, please follow me on Medium and on Twitter and stay tuned.

If you like the idea of this application and see its value, you can help. Click the green heart below this post and share it with your fellows. Thank you!

Update (April 21, 2017). Over the last year I’ve built grave confidence that the fight against the spam is not the one ultimately interesting to Instagram. It’s not even close. So no, I won’t bother Kevin.