How To Go Viral On Instagram

An Instagram impresario explains: It’s all about the comments.

David J. Bertozzi for BuzzFeed

Within 60 seconds of posting a new picture on Instagram, Elliot Tebele can tell if the photo will go viral. If it gets 500 likes in that first minute, that’s a good indication.

Tebele’s Instagram account, @FuckJerry, has over 650,000 followers, for whom he serves up a daily selection of about five pieces of internet ephemera — memes, funny pictures, screenshots of tweets and text message conversations. After those first 500, the posts regularly go on to get thousands, if not tens of thousands, of likes within a few days.

But likes, however coveted, aren’t what cause an Instagram to truly spread and rack up followers for the account. “It’s all about the comments,” Tebele said. “The way I think most of the followers come in is people adding their friends on the photo.”

Tebele, 23, said that when a follower sees a photo they want to share, they’ll usually post a comment tagging friends’ usernames, prompting a notification, as a way of passing the post along. Those friends often do the same with other friends, resulting in thousands of comments and thousands of new followers. If you’re not a celebrity or well-established brand — and maybe even if you are — this is the way to spread on Instagram, and fast.

Being a celebrity on Instagram — often considered the most private of the major social networks — is a peculiar brand of internet fame. Countless style and food bloggers have spread on Instagram by posting artfully cropped photos of themselves or their creations that have voyeuristic and inspirational appeal. But curating pictures that might make people laugh, like @FuckJerry does, is a different game. Of course, other accounts post memes and funny photos, but most are either more self-promotional, affiliated with a brand or website, or don’t have as many followers.

The account’s logo — the turquoise and purple logo from Solo cups of the ’90s — is a good indicator of what works best on the account: “in” jokes for the masses.

Tebele said he painstakingly sources the small collection of photos he thinks his followers will like. He regularly finds photos on Tumblr, where he initially had a blog of the same name before moving primarily to Instagram, but also receives a deluge of submissions from followers through private Instagram messages, and the occasional email. “It’s literally a full-time job,” he said.

That, at least, is the plan. A few months ago, Elie Balass, a childhood friend from Brooklyn, who graduated last year from Stanford, joined to see if they might turn the Instagram popularity into a viable business. They are both very tall and thin, and look like they could be brothers.

One strategy has been to launch additional feeds — Tebele now also runs @KanyeDoingThings (self-explanatory), @NBACourtside_ (basketball photos), and @JetstreamOfBullshit (short movie clips, everything from Pulp Fiction to Road Trip)

Compared with food or style bloggers, there is a somewhat less clear path to creating a money-making brand, but they are considering apparel and advertising. They have posted only a few sponsored pictures, and they must be funny and on-brand with the account’s sense of humor. On Instagram, in particular, they said, people are very sensitive to advertising — “the audience tends to bug out” — so they are hesitant about alienating and losing followers.

“I’m not really making much off it now, but we’re trying to build a full website with humor content. And then there’s some apparel in the works, some funny T-shirts,” Tebele said.

Tebele’s followers, after all, are a surprisingly dedicated bunch. I learned about the account when some friends at a barbecue were talking about their favorite recent photos — particularly popular was what appeared to be a stock photo of a guinea pig having raw brussels sprouts poured on him. The pictures, everyone said, were a dependable laugh while waiting for a train or looking up from a spreadsheet. Most importantly, they live on your phone, a key factor in workplaces where computers block most social media sites.

By perhaps this same logic, the account is also popular among celebrities. Tebele said Katy Perry, A-Trak, Cara Delevingne, Snoop Dogg, and a number of Victoria’s Secret models are among his followers.

Tebele said he tries to read through as many of the comments as possible, but keeps notifications off except for those accounts he’s following. The @FuckJerry account follows mostly celebrities and other prominent Instagrammers, because, well, you do want to know when Katy Perry likes your Instagram.

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