What's Tap Magic, and Why It’s Taking Over Instagram

Hearts all the way down.
January 27, 2017, 6:28pm
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The "double tap" spam image takes many forms. Some of the pictures are blurry, others generic enough to be stock photos. Often they're mildly pornographic—seedy cartoons and pictures of celebrities with camel toe. Many are visual non-sequiturs, blandly pleasant images which don't make sense. Then there are the sentimental, crudely drawn memes like this one of a woman and a man on his knee in front of her (aesthetically they owe a lot to "One Weird Trick" clickbait).

Some pictures make demands in the captions. Comment a single word; "stop" or "fall" (on a picture of a man hanging off a rock) or "ass" (a picture of Iggy Azalea and her nameless "New Boyfriend"). Others dispense with instructions entirely, and just circle a salacious detail in red.

Of course, under almost every one there are comments from angry people saying they double tapped and nothing changed.

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What is going on here? Why would users expect "magic" from their Instagram feeds, and why would the creators of these memes promise it?

It doesn't take long to unearth whole accounts dedicated to propagating this spam. One takes the concept as its title: @doubletap.me's Instagram feed is private, but their images are viewable here. There are "double tap sticker" apps all over the internet (including in the App Store) which let you brand your pictures with the instruction ("double tap to high five," "double tap to rock on").

What do these weird pictures gain for those who post them? Are they gathering followers for a more malicious spam attack at a later date?

"At its core, it is about getting likes," said Satnam Narang, Senior Security Response Manager at Symantec, an expert in malware and spam. "Since Instagram users can also see what their friends are liking, the posts may show up in those parts of their feeds. Asking users to comment will improve the engagement factor with the hope of adding new followers."

Narang's belief is that the end goal for these accounts is to be featured on Instagram's Explore tab. Accounts posting similar—or the exact same—images will comment on and like each others pictures, creating a "network effect" where those with a larger following help the smaller ones to grow.

He also noted that he'd encountered similar spam before: "We've certainly seen posts asking users to 'double tap for X,' but this variation takes it a step further by trying to convince the user that adding a comment will reveal something to them. As you can guess, there is no "magic" that appears in the images after a user double taps, although there will be users who follow these instructions expecting it."

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It's interesting how much of this apparently homegrown material emulates–and often outdoes–mainstream marketing. The "call to action" is one of the oldest tricks in the marketing book, as is the color red, shown in research to draw attention and inspire impulsivity.

Instagram has had something of a problem with spam in recent years, enough to prompt declarations that "the future of Instagram is spam." The site is riddled with 'adult dating' lures, image theft and links to customer survey 'quizzes' where the only reward is identity theft. This spam preys on vanity, sexual frustration and the need for cash, distilling the world into fundamental appetites. Often spam accounts don't even have pictures; only an instruction to "GET 100 FOLLOWERS OR MORE."

The red circle pictures also play on how Instagram has legitimized spam as a kind of human behavior, especially among teenage users. Single-word comments like "row" and "first," and the implicit promise of like-for-like, followback-for-follow rule supreme on the network, human-fuelled rather than due to robots. In this landscape, above-board marketers walk an uneasy path: where is the border between marketing and spam, when all interaction here is vaguely spammy?

It's also funny how spam became an aesthetic, however unintentionally, over the years, one borne out by many of these pictures. They're seedy and slapdash, like other unlikely spam memes which prevail today. On YouTube comments a "copypasta" chain letter still does the rounds promising a free iPad under your pillow (no, really). On forums we've all been "visited" by the "spooky skeleton," while on Twitter it's never long before you're approached by a sexy, barely believable female avatar promising you followers by following her.

The spam underground is ragged place, where progress remains unevenly distributed. Sophisticated malware attacks might have a high success rate, but who's to say Instagram clickbait won't work too? Chaos is a ladder, as they say, and the lowest rungs are crowded up with weird and wonderful failspam.