Up for discussion in the Guardian tech newsletter: A company claims it will plant one tree for every Instagram post of a beloved pet, but all is not as it seems.
Last modified on Wed 17 Nov 2021 12.11 GMT
Last week, you likely couldn’t flick through your Instagram stories without being inundated with pet pictures – even more than usual.
The pitch was “We’ll plant 1 tree for every pet picture”, using a feature Instagram had rolled out a week before called the “Add Yours” sticker, which acts almost like a chain mail way of making viral posts on Instagram.
It was the unique confluence of a new feature on Instagram, an organisation quickly jumping on something that was guaranteed to go viral (asking people to post pictures of their pets), and couch activism.
It worked. By early last week, it had been shared close to 5 million times. Dalmatians, pugs, tabby cats and all variety of pets were unavoidable on Instagram all using the same sticker promising a tree would be planted.
But it wasn’t clear who was behind it, or whether all of those trees would ever be planted.
And surprise – we don’t know.
Charity begins at Chrome
A company called Plant A Tree Co claimed responsibility, saying it deleted the post within ten minutes of publishing, but the sticker continued on a life of its own, just without the source. Like any good chain mail. They said in, unsurprisingly, an Instagram story, that they can’t plant the trees, but have started a fundraiser.
This is where most of the media coverage of the viral moment ended. But it is worth looking deeper into who is behind it all, and what it says about social media today.
The man behind Plant A Tree Co, 23-year-old Floridian Zack Saadioui, appears to run several of these sorts of Instagram accounts, that drive engagement and follower counts through promising to donate to charity on behalf of those who follow his accounts and post stories linking to the account.
According to the Plant A Tree Co website, it appears he has at least followed through with some, posting receipts, including to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service after the devastating bushfires at the start of 2020.
The company also claims to have planted more than 6,500 trees through the Eden Reforestation Project, which costs $0.10 per tree planted, suggesting total donations in the range of $650. The company claims to have donated over $600,000 to different charities.
This sort of social media tactic is a very easy and cheap way to improve follower counts, and get more engagement on social media. It has worked spectacularly well for Plant A Tree Co, which has over 1.1m followers.
Saadioui’s main business is Prkd, which promises to be an Airbnb but for parking – you can find a space to rent through an app. Prior to this startup he was a college student and an intern, and he appears to have set up these pages while still a student.
Saadioui told the Guardian he is the only Plant A Tree Co employee, and the company operates out of his home. Saadioui said he could not plant 4m trees, and the fundraiser launched for Trees for the Future will be handled entirely through Instagram, meaning he won’t receive any of the money personally.
How to make a tree go viral
Some have suggested Saadioui’s businesses operate as a form of drop-shipping, encouraging people to buy products through the Instagram accounts.
Drop-shipping is where the seller of a product doesn’t actually stock that product. It is a way of making money easily by acting as a middle man between a large distribution company like Alibaba and the lucky buyer of a variety of necklaces, which are sold by Alibaba for tiny fractions of cents and marked up significantly by the sellers, who then market the products on social media. The infrastructure for payments is outsourced to a company like Shopify, and it’s all very easy to set up.
Saadioui has a YouTube video explaining how his business works as easy “passive income”.
The accounts promise to donate some of the profits to charities on whatever various hot button issue is around at the time – Australian bushfires, Black Lives Matter, or in this case climate change off the back of Cop26.
Saadioui said his businesses were set up more like other Amazon businesses than traditional drop-shipping.
“We have a fulfilment centre that packages the jewellery and adds labelling and branding, which comes at a cost. Then the necklace gets shipped out from the fulfilment centre,” he said. “Basically, the same process as 99% of the products on Amazon. We fulfil each necklace individually instead of buying a lot in bulk so that we don’t have to make a big investment in a lot of necklaces at once.”
“100% of the profits get reinvested into the company so that we can start larger campaigns.”
Gaming the gram
Others have raised questions about when Plant A Tree’s content has gone viral in the past. It says a lot about where social media at right now. You have a company like Meta trying to increase engagement with a new feature that instantly takes off, but is immediately used for people who looked to be trying to make money off it, or drive their own engagement.
It was relatively harmless in this instance – aside from people who may have parted way with cash for an overpriced necklace – compared to other things that Meta has had happen on its platforms in the past year, but once again shows how quickly these things can take off and have a life of their own perhaps beyond what Meta had designed it for.
It also shows just how easily a lot of social media engagement can now be gamed. Even those posting their pet pics ironically had engaged with it, and to a degree it shows how little people challenge what they are presented on social media before spreading it on to others.
While I would like to believe people would engage in deeper critical thought for something more serious than “pet pics to save the environment”, it’s not difficult to draw the conclusion that people who blindly posted it without thinking may be susceptible to content being shared with a more nefarious purpose in the future.
People now being aware of this new Instagram feature should lessen the impact somewhat – until the next one.
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