I’ve got to try my best not to go off on too many tangents with this post, as my thoughts on Instagram and Facebook as a whole are seemingly infinite and almost exclusively negative (he says, with Facebook and Instagram open in tabs alongside this).
I’ve written about this once before in a university essay, but this is something I think will resonate among others who also are becoming increasingly dependent on a smart little app known as Instagram.
A close rival to Facebook, Instagram was bought out by the social media giant in 2012 for $1b. Today it’s estimated by be worth over $100b had it not been bought out.
With over a billion active users, and about 95 million posts daily (so says Quora, don’t @ me).
With so many users, Instagram began to develop ways to prioritise feeds, scrapping reverse chronological feeds which users had become accustomed to, in favour of one dictated by an algorithm designed for the causal user.
If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in. And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it. (https://instagram-press.com/blog/2016/03/15/see-the-moments-you-care-about-first/)
From here on in, the algorithm became shrouded in a vague cloud of ambiguity, which was only recently cleared up in a series of tweets.
A quick search will reveal the basics of this mysterious piece of code, which combines the data from six aspects of a user’s browsing habits to determine what shows in your feed.
Interest - How much Instagram predicts you’ll care about a post
Timeliness - How recent the posts are
Relationship - The accounts you regularly interact with.
Frequency - How often a user opens Instagram
Following - Content from all accounts a user follows
Usage - The time a user spends on the platform
I believe that these six metrics work much better for, as I said, the causal user who posts cat photos, or pictures of their yearly pumpkin spiced anything. But this same algorithm applies for both casual users, and users who are increasingly reliant on Instagram to find photography work - a group for whom this algorithm is not suitable.
The algorithm is altering the photography industry quicker than those in it can seem to keep up, and I don’t think it’s for the better.
Would you like it if your success was dictated by a secret algorithm locked away in a supercomputer in SoCal which changes at arbitrary moments?
For example, it wouldn’t be welcomed if the friends you had, or the food you ate, was dictated by a few arbitrary metrics.
No longer does it seem possible to find client work away from Instagram, as the algorithm puts people with tech savvy above those without. Master the six metrics and you’ll reach Insta-Nirvana. Fall short, and you’ll lose engagement, and out of the sights of the big brands in search of new talent.
The photography industry should not be as reliant on Instagram as it is, as it has created an environment incredible toxic to the true creative.
I have developed a tendency to refresh the app every few minutes to see which new notifications I’ve received, especially after I’ve posted recently. Man the dopamine rush is really not worth it.
There’s also tendency in me to labour over the numbers. Follower counts, like counts, comment counts, anything that can be used as a metric to place me in a position amongst other photographers used to be my main goal. This is less true now, but for a time I would religiously check in once a day, go through all of my posts and update a spreadsheet with the number of likes and comments to allow me to work out and track the average, and work out which images worked better for the app, and which ones didn’t; and it lead to me starting to make terrible images.
I recently purged my Instagram feed, archiving about a hundred images, and unfollowing nearly 1000 accounts, which, as well as the sensible part of my brain which has been screaming this for months, has made me realise that things like follower counts and like counts, while important, aren’t the sole metric on how good an image is.
That is down to they way you see it, not what a few numbers say.
Some pressure was taken off of me with one aspect of the algorithm, hashtags, when I (through a friend) discovered an app which essentially does it all for you.
Perfect, right? Plug in a few bits of information, what the image was made on, where it was, what it is, and out the other end comes thirty shiny hashtags for you to copy into your next post; conveniently including four or five full-stops to send them below the ‘read more’ ellipses. But as I’ll mention in a moment, it takes something away from the viewing of a photograph.
This applies somewhat less to my photography personally, but I am aware of a mild infuriation amongst street photographers about feature pages. Specifically, ones which post blatantly obvious composites on a page devoted to the natural, unprompted candid. Alongside accusations of theft by photographers who believe that they can claim the rights to a specific view from a very well trodden path which happens to be frequented by thousands of people a day, and then have the gall to call anyone else who photographs there a plagiarist… A tangent, one which a street photographer will explain better.
In my own photography, I began to follow a lot of these feature pages thinking they’d be CV worthy promotion machines. Black and white, architecture, city life pages were all added to my following list. It all started out with good intentions, and I would add the appropriate hashtags to by daily posts, until eventually I got my first feature on arkiromantix_bw.
I caught the bug, and I began taking and uploading photos with the sole purpose of using these feature page hashtags, trying to get a half day feature amongst other mediocre photos; photos which, as is the nature of these feature pages, are lost to the tide within a few days.
Another thing that I've come to notice recently, among both regular users and photographers who use the app, is how people’s viewing habits have changed with the advent of endless feeds. This has caused the act of viewing a photograph and appreciating it to diminish. The endless feed, not necessarily even in chronological order, created a mentality of rapidly scrolling down, liking every single post without even looking at it properly. Could this problem be overcome by introducing an update which adds a timer, forcing you to look at the post for longer? Perhaps.
Then there is the platform’s bot problem. It’s awash with cheats and bots; followers to purchase and accounts which can spam like and artificially increase an image’s perceived engagement, at the detriment of those who do not. On my personal account, almost daily I receive follow requests from bots, usually porn based. Apparently the nonsensical postings of a post-teen turn them on?
Instagram’s use as a force for good in photography is present, it’s just irritatingly well hidden amongst the sea of detritus and bot fodder which occupies the majority of the platform. An example of this is the page 2kstreet_, run by another friend of mine. A shining example of how good Instagram could, and should, be. Well curated, clean, and transparent. Each photographer gets a week at the top, showcasing three images, with a large buffer of white space between their work and the next.
This is compared to the feature pages I used to follow - full of cluttered, visually similar images, posted twice daily; with no clearly defined rules besides the one about which hashtag to use.
So what can be done to improve it? And how can photographers get around the common issues?
That’s down to the users mostly, as Instagram seems stuck in terms of how they can progress.
The best thing I can think of: use Instagram as your launchpad. If you have a website, post there as well. Curate it well, curate it originally, and draw traffic from your Instagram account to there.