“Is this the real life or is this just fantasy?” Little did he he know, but Freddy Mercury pretty much summed up Instagram in the first line of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Like it or not (pun intended), our lives are becoming more and more focused around social media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat to name a few and of course Instagram.

Lately Instagram has been my social media platform of choice – why? I guess it’s like when you were a young kid and your mum took you to the library, which books did you first choose? Possibly the ones with the most pictures and not too much writing?

From early doors most of us all had a picture book which we would flick from page to page and make up our own story before we could read. Or our parents would make up the story and not read the words before bedtime so that they could get back to the living room as quickly as possible and chill (and maybe crack open a vino) after a long day of answering ‘what, when, where and why’ from their toddler.

Is Instagram the new picture book of choice that tells the story? And what story does it tell?

I first got into Instagram around 2015 just after I had run the Olympic and World qualifying time for the Steeplechase and I was heading out to Beijing to compete at the World Track & Field Championships. It was, in one way, similar to Facebook. A way of keeping in touch with friends and family at home. A way for me to let them know how I was getting on. It was also a way in which I could link with my athletics’ peers and see how they were getting on.

As time has gone on, however, it has become a place where I have plugged sponsors, tried to gain sponsors and tried to gain followers in order to gain new sponsors, it’s a vicious circle really. These days it’s no longer only about keeping in touch with friends, but it’s also become a platform for marketing and generating income for businesses. I have, of course, fallen into this trap, to an extent as a full-time athlete, in order to secure kit and products that help towards my running activity and development. I am very grateful for those sponsors that help keep me afloat through product endorsement.

What is frustrating for me is that Instagram is no longer an organic platform. Every day I receive messages and emails asking me to “buy” followers, which I refuse to do. However, in making this choice I am also affecting my profile and therefore fall on the wrong side of the 2018 Instagram Algorithm Trap.

So what is this algorithm? Check out an insight into its outworking at;

Personally, I have around 2,000 followers on Instagram. They are a combination of friends, family and ‘other sporty people’. Depending on both when and what I post, I have tended to get around 10% of my followers ‘liking the posts’. At first this made me think that my posts must be really boring or indeed plain stupid. On further investigation I was able to find out the ‘reach’ of the posts, that is, how many of the 2,000 followers had actually seen each post. This was typically in the 25% to 50% range. Then talking to a few friends who are avid surfers on the Instagram feed, I discovered they hadn’t actually seen many of my posts. The Instagram Algorithm had determined that, based on my activity, that only a proportion of my followers would see each post. I had naively assumed that all followers would have the opportunity to see each post.

On Facebook, I had discovered some time back that I was losing followers on my ‘athlete’ page. These followers were actually not physically ‘unfollowing me’ but Facebook was doing this (my friend had to go on and ‘re-like my page’ a few times in the space of a month). So what is driving this behaviour by the leading social media platforms?

From what I can understand (and I am by no means an expert in this area) depending on how often you are on Instagram or how often you engage changes the output from the Instagram Algorithm. I’ve put this to the test and engagement can be anything from 5%-25% depending on the post, time of day and of course hashtag – don’t get me started on those and the fact that if a hashtag is ‘broken’ or ‘banned’ it means all your hashtags will be broken and your posts will be hidden;

I’ve looked at other peoples profiles and not even Usain Bolt (8.4 M followers) typically gets anywhere near 10% engagement of his followers, so what’s happening really? It would seem to be all about generating income for the social media providers. Not all followers are ‘real followers’ (not a day goes buy without me receiving an offer to ‘pay to boost your follower numbers’) and not all followers are getting to see the posts of the people they follow.

As ‘free platforms’ Instagram and others generate most of their income through marketing – so the more followers the more value you are to them; yet many of the followers these days are not ‘real’. If this persists then surely the advertisers themselves will soon catch on and income to the social media providers will drop? The Instagram Algorithm would seem to be operating contrary to the Instagram business model, as it is penalising ‘real users with real followers’ in preference to users with ‘paid-for followers’. It doesn’t seem to be a sustainable position. Furthermore, they make the situation worse by only offering certain features to users with more than, say, 10,000 followers, incentivising users to ‘buy followers’. However, it’s a castle built on shifting sand.

So what does it mean for us, the humble athlete earning less than the minimum wage from our sport? Well for the athletes who are trying to gain sponsors in this day and age, most sponsors are looking into social media profiles, seeing how many people follow you, engage in your post etc etc. The higher the following the more attractive you are to a sponsor. Yet, many of the follower numbers are not real.

The spam continues – ‘pay now to feature one of your posts that is performing well’ – a ‘free’ platform finding other ways of generating income. I consistently and persistently ignore them, but am I then running the risk of falling fowl of the dreaded Instagram Algorithm?

I have spoken to a few friends recently in the same boat as me and we have chatted about the algorithm and the constant requests to buy (fake) followers and the ongoing battle of actually getting reposts (the ones that you don’t pay for). The whole “popularity platform saga” has been getting a few people down, which is the other side of social media and runs contrary to the original intention of ‘staying in touch’ and ‘telling a story’.

The Fairy Story
It’s often said that people go to the movies for 90 minutes of escapism. Is social media similar? Does every post paint the perfect picture? Do posts reflect the reality of life? Should they even reflect the reality of life? Maybe this is the modern form of escapism? I’ll hold up my hands on this one. I do try and be very honest with all my posts. I always try and make them as positive as I can. However, does every smiling selfie post reflect how I’m really feeling? I know mine don’t all the time but that’s part and parcel of life.

Many of us like to live in this happy bubble of social media and sometimes hide behind the smile. If most of us are truthful we have felt a sense of rejection when we don’t get many likes, when a post doesn’t get many comments. Understanding more about the whole Instagram Algorithm and the financial drivers behind social media means, for me, it doesn’t bother me anymore personally. However, I have to be concerned and do need to worry about engagement when I post for my sponsors.

So back to the here and now. I still use Instagram as a way to engage people to help me keep my sponsors, but more importantly it’s really about where it all started – staying in touch with people that matter. I now also try and use Instagram to have a bit of fun, to take the serious side of hard training and life in general out of the equation a bit and let my hair down.

Recently out at altitude training in Font Romeu in the Pyrenees, I started to post more Insta Stories, mainly to have some fun and also show people the amazing place that I’ve been going to for training for the past 12 years. I also wanted to show people that when we train we also can have fun discovering new trails, have a laugh (apologies for the horrendous singing in the mountains) and eat lots (loads of almond croissants and good coffee too). It’s also a way of me showing that its not always about the running but that I’m a girl who also loves shopping, animals, food, singing (not very well) and generally having a laugh (I think at myself most of the time).

My friend sent me this quote recently – “Don’t change so people will like you. Be yourself and the right people will Love you.” It definitely made me think about what I post, when I post, why I post and whether I’m I really staying true to myself?

I will continue to use Instagram and also continue to complain about it everyday (I love a good moan, usually over coffee with some poor soul who happens to be with me).

However, every time I post, the underlying question stands; Is it the Real Me or is it InstaMe?