If you’ve opened up Instagram Stories in the last couple of weeks, it’s likely you’ve encountered a friend staring bewildered at the front-facing camera lens on their phone while some sort of Sims-like interface hovers above their forehead, rapidly rolling through a panoply of options, like a jumped-up Las Vegas slot machine.
Eventually, it stops, and displays something like a prediction for 2020 or which childhood character they’re supposedly most like, whether that’s Dory from Finding Nemo or Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The “What X Are You” filter is seemingly everywhere now — and canny filter creators have recognized its power to make them go viral. One, named Arno Partissimo, went from 6,000 followers to 580,000 in a week after celebs, including Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda and actress Vanessa Hudgens, tried out his filter named, somewhat awkwardly, “Which Disney Are You?” (In a nice bit of poetry, Williams’ daughter landed on the Genie from Aladdin.)
Google search traffic for “Instagram filter” in the U.S. skyrocketed in the week after Christmas. How to find Partissimo’s Disney filter is one of the highest-ranking queries on Google. Numerous websites have created SEO-friendly guides to installing and using the filters, in order to game search traffic.
Being a filter creator is “a very current strategy for quickly gaining views,” says Tim Highfield, a researcher at the University of Sheffield and co-author of a recent book on Instagram. That’s because in order to access the filters, ordinary users have to visit the profile page of the person who developed them. They then click on a special story button in order to save the filter to their app. While they’re there, many also click the follow button to show their support. Developing a successful filter can help creators skip the line to Insta stardom, building a follower count without having to spend the time meticulously crafting a social media personality or posting engaging content.
Italian filter developer Filippo Soccini went from 1,000 followers to 80,000 followers in three days (he’s added another 15,000 in just over a day). “It’s kind of incredible to me,” he explains in a recent YouTube video. Soccini had created six filters in the three months before the one that went crazy viral: the 2020 predictions filter, which offers up forecasts that run the gamut from getting married to being “fablous [sic].”
“I started making filters because I liked it, and not because I wanted to get famous.”
“I started making filters because I liked it, and not because I wanted to get famous,” he says in the clip. Not everyone thinks that way, though. “I know some of you are watching this video because they want to know how can I [get] so many followers in so few days.”
In August 2019, Clément Quennesson, a 24-year-old French developer/entrepreneur in the crypto space, developed his first filter, which overlaid images of a person’s fingers spelling out the letters JUL, after a popular French rapper. It went viral on French Instagram after it was used by the rapper himself. Quennesson spotted what he calls the “random filters trend” at the end of December, when he saw friends using filters like “Which Animal Are You?” and “Which Disney Princess Are You?” So he developed three filters in a single day to capitalize on the trend: "Which Baby Animal," "Which Hip Hop Artist," and "Which Sea Creature."
Since January 2, those three filters have been used on Instagram more than a million times, and seen nearly 50 million times. In case you were wondering, Instagram users prefer baby animals (10.4 million impressions) to sea creatures (2.5 million). But they can’t get enough of seeing which hip-hop artist they are, with 35 million impressions in four days.
“The funny thing is that people have discovered these filters firstly in the story of their friends,” he tells Input. “Very few large accounts have shared my filters yet.” (Quennesson was temporarily banned from Instagram on January 5 because the social network thought he was a bot: He was curious about who was using his filter, and so watched hundreds of stories produced by people using it in a short period of time.)
But bandwagon jumpers may have a hard time of it. “I don't think it would be easy for someone to build an audience” from quickly developing a single filter, says Laura Edwards, co-founder of The Viral Group, a talent agency managing influencers. However, for those like Partissimo who are building numerous high-quality filters, success is more likely, she says.
Even for those who don’t manage to make it big, the halo effect from Instagram filters is far-reaching. Quennesson’s follower count stalled at around 10,000 when Instagram temporarily banned him in error. But he’s not mad. “Several brands contacted me,” he says, asking him to develop filters for them. He’s already developed one for a French radio station and is in discussion with French YouTubers to make filters for them. He can earn anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for each one. Prediction: He’s going to have a fablous 2020.