Instagram started as a simple mobile app for sharing photographs. Once celebrities started using the app, its huge marketing potential became evident. Facebook bought it and started changing the platform, making it more efficient in terms of advertising.
That’s a synthetic but true summary of what Instagram was and is. As you can see, there is no focus on photography or user experience. They repeatedly showed they don’t care about their community nor do they especially love photography. Facebook only cares about data and ads, and Instagram is now Facebook with a different brand.
So why are people using Instagram? Most users are on Instagram because they follow some celebrity, some brand or some kind of self proclaimed influencer. It is also common to follow friends and people we actually know in real life. That is all. Again, no focus on photography. We follow them for staying updated on topics, not for experiencing meaningful photography.
The recent changes to Instagram algorithms made reaching a wider audience more difficult. The discover feed is not in chronological order anymore and it now follows algorithms made for pleasing advertisers. Ads and suggested accounts infest our personal feed while posts from people we actually follow stay hidden. Millions of users complained about it but of course Instagram doesn’t care. The new algorithms are perfect for ads broadcasting and that’s all they care about.
Instagram became a mirror of reality. The rich stay rich, the popular stay popular. The rest must follow in awe, buying stuff the lucky ones promote, hoping one day to also get picked by the algorithm. Wishing for fame and fortune to also kiss them. It almost seems like a Black Mirror episode.
Instagram requires the use of hashtags for a post to be discoverable, but some hashtags will get you shadow banned. For example, you may be wondering why are you receiving few to no likes from people that don’t follow you already: it is because you used too often the hashtags “love” and “instadaily”, so the system decided to shadow ban you. Being shadow banned means you don’t appear in the discover feed nor in searches. For how long? No one knows. You probably don’t even know you are being shadow banned. How wonderful. It could also be you are using hashtags that are soft banned, meaning your single posts using them will not show in the discover feed. And again, you can’t know if this is happening. To sum it up: you are required to use hashtags if you want to be found, yet some hashtags are causing shadow ban or soft ban; and you can’t know which hashtag is good or bad.
Instagram double tapped a like on a society where some people have more rights than others. The famous singer can post vulgar photos with strong sexual content, the average user has the account closed for a chaste artistic nude. And again: it is not possible to post photos showing female nipples. Yes, in 2018 someone is still offended by female nipples or thinks such a view will ruin teenager’s minds. At the same it’s apparently fine for Instagram to have accounts filled with photos of guns and violent messages. Like the one that belonged to Nikolas Cruz, the nutjob that just killed 17 people in Florida. I could go on with such paradoxes. This nonsense doesn’t just apply to Instagram: YouTube is doing even worse. Huge platforms don’t care much about their core mission, nor about pleasing their user base or about promoting freedom of speech or equal treatments for all the users. They only care about money.
PLAY BY THE RULES
You may say you can find good and very popular photography accounts. Let’s talk about this. First of all: most of these became popular before Instagram changed the algorithms. Second: these accounts accepted to play by the rules. They focused on strategies for increasing the followers number.
Growing an audience on Instagram requires that you:
- post often
- post during moments of day when you have more engagement
- keep a consistent theme
- join communities, asking to be featured there
- post lots of comments and likes
- have a Facebook account linked to your Instagram one
- have a user base somewhere else (YouTube, probably)
- follow a lot of users hoping they fallow you back
- paying some shady company to gain followers
Do you see any mention of photography? There is no focus at all on the content of your posts. You could post bad random snapshots of rocks and still grow an audience if following all these steps. Beside that, I am a photographer, my life is to take photos and hopefully tell something of value to other people. I won’t work for Instagram: I won’t spend time planning, analysing, pondering, postponing, editing, profiling, connecting and so on just to please their system and get a momentary prize. No, thank you. I prefer taking photos. I am a photographer, not a social manager.
Instagram only wants you to use the platform more, creating more views, more traffic, watching more ads being fed to you constantly. They want you to spend more time in the app so that you will watch more ads. They want to have growing views stats so they can ask more money from the advertisers. End of story.
Let’s see some of these points in detail. Experts will tell you that you must keep a theme if you want to grow followers. This means posting photos that are similar. Similar visuals, similar topics, similar tones, similar contrasts, similar composition. This way, the viewer will want to follow you to have more of that, and he will also feel assured about your ability to produce a consistent quality.
This is a terrible advice. I have nothing against a consistent theme if it is what you feel you need to produce. Doing that for gaining more followers is completely wrong though. If you accept this, it means you care more about followers than you do about expressing yourself in freedom. You care more about your popularity than your integrity. You abandon honesty and spontaneity because you value popularity more.
Let’s say you shoot a photo that means something for you, but that is not fitting the rest of your profile photos. What should you do? Not post it? Edit it so that it fits the theme? For who, for Instagram? We need truth, we need honesty. Removing originality and spontaneity from your photos in exchange of popularity is so sad. You think you are doing it for yourself, but you are doing it for a multinational company that uses you for making money.
FOLLOW 4 FOLLOW, LIKE 4 LIKE
Follow me and I will follow you. Another paradoxical situation. It will happen often to find accounts that are following 3000 accounts and that are followed by kinda 2000. That is because it is probable that if you follow a lot of people, someone will also follow back. What does this say about you? It says that you care more about being popular than appreciating what others post.
There is no way you can stay up to date with the posts of thousands of accounts, even if you spend all your time on Instagram. If you follow thousands, it means you care about no one. I never managed following more than around 100 users: after that, I felt it became not possible to honestly follow their updates, watch carefully their photos, comment, and so on.
The same goes for likes. Putting likes hoping for likes in return. Feeling validated because a post got more likes. Stop and think for a minute: who did put that like? As a photographer, do you care if someone that maybe has no respect for photography liked your work? Do you care if someone double tapped it while browsing fast, without even understanding what you wanted to say? What is the value of a like on Instagram? Of course, we are happy to receive the like from people we appreciate. I am not talking about that. The big numbers are not made from the few people that are dear to us. The big numbers are made by countless strangers in a hurry. And yet, a voice in your head is saying to you that if the photo got more likes, it is more successful. Maybe it even is a better photo. Which is not true. The likes are a global hallucination, and a minute of rational thinking is enough to destroy it.
This is another thing that bothers me. Most of the popular photography accounts don’t belong to single photographers, but to aggregators. An aggregator is an account that features the work of other accounts. They ask you to tag them or direct message them and ask to be featured. Some will feature you for free, some will ask money or propose a deal of sorts.
Photographers want to be featured because they think this will make them popular, while in reality they are just helping another account grow and get high quality content for free. It is common to find a photo in an aggregator and then see it was selected from the work available in another aggregator, so the original author is not even mentioned. And even when she/he is mentioned, it is rare for the casual Instagram speed watcher to go and click on the original photographer and follow her/him. Which brings me to a final point of disgust.
INSTAGRAM ON SPEED
Ask yourself: how much time do you spend on a single photo, when browsing Instagram? Pretty few, yeah. Let’s make it a bit fairer: how much time do you spend watching a photo you actually did like? Same few time. That is because most of the time we just speed browse through our feed. We rarely stop, zoom, watch details. Instagram is not made for that. The photos have a terrible resolution once put in the system: it is thought for mobile usage and small screens anyway. No one at Instagram cares about image quality.
For years they kept an Android version with terrible upload quality, where every photo you posted had aliasing, compression artifacts and so on. The iOS version had not such issues. They didn’t give a damn about this until Android had enough flagships and high quality phones, meaning it made sense to care for the platform. At Instagram they care for who has a chance of buying something, so they can show the ads.
So, does it make sense for photography lovers using this platform at all? Try to look at yourself from the outside, look at yourself browsing hundreds of low quality thumbnails of photos, double tapping mindlessly or hoping to get likes in return, following so you are being followed, trying to post photos people will like, putting censorship on your art and your ideas, being banned for no reason, silently, and all that while they hide what you want to see, they show you what they want you to see, they collect your usage habits and sell them to advertisers so that the more fitting ads are showed to you. Instagram is not a free service for photography lovers. It is not anymore even a free social network. It is a platform for worldwide advertisement broadcasting that uses videos and photos as an excuse for keeping people online and watching ads.
After years being on the platform I decided I am not interested anymore. I archived most of my gallery — I still archive something from time to time — and unfollowed profiles I don’t care about. I accepted the fact that my followers count will keep going down. I will post something once in a while or I won’t post anymore: it is the same.
Instagram stopped being a nice platform: it turned into something harmful for millions of new photographers. These new photographers are being taught what matters is becoming popular following the rules of an unfair system instead of focusing all energies on what makes photography magical: learning, daring, being free. Exploring the world. Capturing the light that moves us. Fighting the unstoppable Empire of Time. Taking photographs can be a moral choice: it can unveil the extraordinary, it can open the eyes, bring back life and passion where it was not found anymore. Photography is communication, and communication has to be honest, for it is otherwise just garbage, background noise. Instagram thrives on this mindless background noise. And I despise that.
Note: this is a rant about Instagram from the point of view of a photographer and photography lover. If you enjoy Instagram as a general purpose social network then most of what I said will make little sense to you.