Bot or Not? A Comparative Analysis of Instagram Botting Behavior Within Circus Communities

What is an Instagram “bot?”

instagram botAn Instagram “bot” (short for robot) is a piece of software (computer application, mobile app, web app or browser extension) that automatically likes, comments, follows, and/or unfollows targeted accounts, keywords, and/or hashtags.

The word “bot” can also be used to describe a completely fake account that does any or all of these actions, but this study did not track those accounts. This study tracks the usage of bot software by real people, not artificial accounts.

How did you gather this data?

This study was sparked by someone anonymously calling out a circus artist for using bots on Instagram. After seeing that call-out, all kinds of questions were raised for me. 

  • How can you tell if someone is botting?
  • What incentives do people in circus have to bot on this platform?
  • Do people who use bots understand the consequences of what they’re doing?
  • Does the community at large feel cheated in some way by people using bots on social platforms?
  • And lastly, would there be negative social consequences for a person revealed to be using bots on Instagram?

This last one illuminates the core reason why I will not be sharing how I gathered the data for this study. I don’t want to see people outed using my method. You’re just going to have to take my word for it as a friend, colleague, technology professional and someone with more to gain by revealing the method than withholding it. I am not a statistician or data analyst by trade, so you’ll also have to just trust me as a hobbyist in this game. If at any point this data makes you feel negative emotions, feel free to say it was compiled by an amateur who probably did the math wrong and have a nice day.

That being said, this data was gathered from approximately 4,000 accounts, specifically targeting Circus communities and Circus-related disciplines. 65 accounts were found to be using botting software. I utilized 3 bots myself using 3 different bot softwares and successfully identified all 3 of them using my method. I hope the visuals and words along the way help to tell the rest of the story and get you thinking about how automation affects you and our communities.

The data shows that, on average, bot-enabled accounts yield a 49% greater Following with 34% less Posts.  On paper, this means more output for less input. More gains for less work. This conclusion makes sense from a purely numbers standpoint, but also falls short in that it cannot discern true Follows vs purchased Follows.

“I utilized 3 bots myself using 3 different bot softwares and successfully identified all 3 of them using my method.”

Vanity metrics: Numbers or stats that look good on paper, but don’t really mean anything important.

At one point not long ago in Instagram’s history, purchasing followers by the thousands on the dollar was a means to pump up your vanity metrics without penalty in an environment of a pre-algorithmically sorted, chronological feed where there were no limits on reaching your follower base.  If you had 100 real followers and bought 1000 more, all 1,100 would see your content so the purchase of followers didn’t hurt you. The ones who could look back on Facebook’s history and see the algorithm as the light of the train at the end of the tunnel, barreling forward to crush this behavior, were smart to not purchase those followers if they wanted to make a long term investment in using the platform. Now those people who bought followers are serving their content to fake accounts and missing out on real ones.


But it’s really just businesses trying to sell things using bots, right?

Botting by CategoryThe majority of bot-enabled accounts are led by individuals, with merchants, troupes, and communities trailing far behind. With a full two-thirds of accounts being used by individuals, it’s also important to mention that most of Instagram is used by individuals so this makes sense.

I don’t have data on how many of the sampled accounts were in each of these categories, but my guess would be that merchants would take up a higher proportion of the data if you took into consideration that they probably accounted for much less of the sample. In effect, there could be a weighted example of this breakdown that would likely show the merchants as taking up much more of the chart, but I don’t have the data to build it. More of a hypothesis that I wish I could test than a conclusion.

“It’s just those damn *insert whatever prop you don’t like* people!”

Breakout by DisciplineThere doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming, singular group that stands out as a cultural culprit, but Hoopers and Aerialists do combine to over half the group, so take that for what it’s worth. I think it brings up more questions than answers about Hoop and Aerial communities or perhaps, once again, they may just have an overall larger presence on the platform than the other disciplines sampled.

The 14% “Misc Fire” group was haphazardly categorized by finding so many accounts where a) a single prop didn’t dominate the page and b) the page was full of really basic fire spinning with a multitude of props and basically no spinning of a prop without it lit. People who were either manic about prop selection and in their first year of spinning, or those who have spent a long time in the scene doing more socializing than practicing.  Pick your poison, I don’t have any breakout. I’ve always felt the practice ethic of any circus community was pretty strong, so my assumption is Door #1–people who just started, are excited to get into the limelight, and have yet to fully absorb their envelopment in the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The 11% “Misc Circus” is built out of a handful of awesome circus disciplines like Diabolo, German Wheel, Cyr Wheel, Ropedart, and Staff, but just didn’t have enough numbers individually to warrant their own separate categories. Sorry to lump y’all together.

So wait, are all of my friends botting Insta and I should disown them, or…join them?

The 1 PercentOf the 1.6% of accounts I found to be using bot software, I had heard of less than 10% and knew only 2 personally, one of which was a troupe whom I’m not entirely sure if everyone in the troupe knows the account is bot-enabled (another moral dilemma).

After a few very informal discussions across Facebook, the general consensus on botting in the Circus communities seems to be one of mostly apathy, and perhaps rightfully so. After all, what do the numbers really mean to you, especially if you know you’re using a bot to get them?

It’s more complicated than that, others say, pointing out that social media numbers may play a role in things like gig, workshop, and performance bookings both in and outside of our communities. Still others rebuke that it’s a question of the Chicken vs. The Egg. Do performance artists get booked based on their social metrics or do they have high social metrics because they’re just good artists?  It’s a difficult question to tease out, but I’m hoping to get my hands on some data to start poking around with the help of the Flow Arts Institute.

Zero Sum Game: a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it

What can I do about it?

  • Don’t fall into the trap of Vanity Metrics. Understand what Instagram’s metrics mean for you and your goals.
  • Employ the 5 Whys Method to get to the bottom of why you use Instagram. Is it to engage and encourage like-minded friends? To be inspired by or keep up with the Jones’s? To distract from working on more important, but difficult life goals? To exchange exposure of your efforts for a steady stream of dopamine hits? The answer will likely not be affected by another person’s usage of a bot, regardless.
  • Recognize that Instagram and the popularity of people in our communities is not a Zero Sum Game. The perceived success of one performance artist is not a detriment to your own success.
  • Don’t be the fox in Aesop’s famed fable The Fox and the Sour Grapes. Assuming someone’s success is reliant upon bots may simply be a reflection of your own insecurities. Instead, engage with that person for tips on how they’ve achieved their success and maybe you’ll get a helping hand towards your own.


Have any thoughts of your own? Join us in the comments here or at Circus Every Day on Facebook.