Instagram started as a simple mobile app for sharing photographs, optionally applying them some filters inspired by slightly older Hipstamatic app and by Lomography. Once a couple of 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 anymore. 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? A big part of 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, for the biggest part of people there is no real focus on photography. Users mostly follow other users for staying updated on topics, not for experiencing meaningful photography.
Still, some professional photographers do use Instagram for promoting themselves, or at least they try. When I say “professional photographers” I mean photographers who are earning their living by selling photography.
The recent changes to Instagram algorithms made reaching a wider audience more difficult. The explore 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 Instagram cares about. Though most of what I search is related to architecture, my explore tab is filled with boring influencers — you know, that same clone over and over again: a cute/sexy girl in a beautiful location (usually a beach), with some lame life coaching text under her staged photo, all for promoting some brand and themselves. I tried over and over to say “not interested” but Instagram just wants to show me that. I am an Architecture photographer, I mostly follow people connected to that, I basically only search for that — but I get the same influencers as everyone.
Instagram requires the use of hashtags for a post to be discoverable, but some hashtags will get you shadow banned. Instagram says this is a myth, though evidence confirmed it is at least partly true. 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 (update 2021: still the same) 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. They are businesses after all. I have no problems with them earning money, if they sell me a quality product. The fact is, we became the product, they don’t sell us anything anymore. It’s just a financial flow, we give them our data, we watch the ads, they earn from the ads and from our data — we are given the impression of receiving something valuable in return.
I think Instagram partly became a mirror of reality. The rich stay rich, the popular stay popular. The rest must follow in awe, hopefully 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.
PLAY BY THE RULES
You may say you can find good photography accounts that became popular and have huge following. 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.
According to many experts — I don’t regard myself as such — growing an audience on Instagram requires that you apply a combination of the following:
- post often
- post during moments of day when you have more engagement
- keep a consistent theme
- join communities, asking (maybe paying for) to be featured there
- post lots of comments and likes
- have a Facebook account linked to your Instagram one (there are different opinions about that though)
- have a user base somewhere else (preferably YouTube)
- follow a lot of users hoping they follow you back
- pay some shady company that sells 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 and making clients happy. 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 just 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.
Just ask yourself: why is Instagram exposing the stats in the profile, upfront, as first thing first about you? Is it important to focus on the number of followers and followed accounts? If you consider it, it makes no sense in terms of appreciation for the content inside the account. Instagram needs to expose the data because it is important for their ads platform: they must show that some accounts are huge and therefore important ads recipient. They must show that playing by the rule and investing time and money, it is possible for advertisers and business to reach a high audience.
The fact that these stats are public and upfront is a symbol of what Instagram cares about. And of course there is no way we can make such data private, which is also a weird choice if you think of it: why should we want to say to everyone who we follow? Why is everything we do (likes, comments, following, etc) exposed to everyone?
Instagram needs to expose all that to drive ads investors and to market itself. It also creates a psychological effect on users, that are more likely spending time on the platform to increase these stats. We would never care about likes or numbers of followers if these data were not put there at the beginning of each account, and Instagram would be a radically different place.
Let’s see some of these growing strategies 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 viewers will want to follow you and get more of that, and they 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. But doing that for gaining more followers is completely wrong. If you accept this strategy 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 with ads. Instagram will sooner or later disappear, your experiences as photographer will remain, and it is your goal to keep them honest, valuable, true, free.
FOLLOW 4 FOLLOW, LIKE 4 LIKE
Follow me and I will follow you. Another paradoxical situation. It will often happen to find accounts that are following 8000 accounts and that are followed by kinda 10000. 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. Instagram likes are a global hallucination, and a minute of rational thinking is enough to destroy it.
Most of the popular photography accounts don’t belong to single photographers, but are what I call “aggregators”. An aggregator is an account that features the work of other accounts. They ask you to tag them or send them adirect message 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 thing, 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 and fidelity.
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 wealthier people using it, meaning it made sense to care for the platform. At Instagram they care for who has a chance of buying something, so they can be shown 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, 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 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 archived most of my gallery at @andreabianco.photography — I still archive something from time to time — and I unfollowed profiles I don’t care about. I don’t care about rules, followers, likes, strategies. I accepted the fact that my followers count went down and will keep going down. I keep the account alive because I use it with some clients and friends. Some photographers friends tell me it is useless to keep an Instagram profile if it has less than 10k followers, but for reaching and surpassing these 10k they live with the smartphone in their hand, following all kind of strategies I listed before. No, thank you: as I wrote before, I won’t work for Instagram. In the Great Scheme of Photography Things I think Instagram is very marginal, and it will soon disappear. I prefer spending time on photography books than on Instagram screens.
Instagram stopped being a stimulating platform for me: I firmly believe it turned into something harmful for millions of new photographers. Yes, harmful. Young photographers are being taught what matters is becoming popular following the rules of an unfair system and copying each other 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.
Note: this is a rant about Instagram from the point of view of a professional photographer and photography lover. If you enjoy Instagram as a general purpose social network then some of what I said will make little sense to you. I also want to point out I am in no way judging people that enjoy Instagram as it is: I am just explaining my point of view. It’s sad I have to write this explicitly, but that’s the Internet!