I've been drafting this post up for a while now, trying to pick the exact words I'd like to use in order to articulate my particular disgust and enamour of Instagram. However, with the introduction of the latest algorithmic changes, I thought it was relevant to publish this post now rather than keeping it on the back burner.
When people find out what I do for a living they always tout back with something like, 'oh my sister's boyfriend's cousin wants to be a photographer but is finding it so hard to make a living off it!'
My reply as of late has been: stay away from Instagram.
Now, it might seem redundant for someone who is not only a photographer, but also a social media manager and strategist to say such a thing. After all, Instagram has been the place for brands, customers and creatives to interact since Facebook implemented their pay-to-play scheme in 2013.
But please indulge me for a second while I try to explain this.
In short, it is not that I don't think people - and especially photographers - shouldn't be on Instagram. In fact, it's somewhat imperative. But, if you want to have a career, if you want to get paid, Instagram shouldn't be at the top of your priorities unless you have a following over 50,000.
Let me go into more detail...
The algorithm favours large followings and popular content
If you're new to the platform, or someone like me who has literally had their account since 2011 but still lacks the hundreds of thousands of followers people are literally gawking over, you've probably noticed a decline in your engagement since around March 2016. The introduction of the algorithmic feed brought changes that would soon see more competition, feed hacks such as comment pods, excessive hashtags (guilty) and of course, automation. Content creators, businesses and celebrities alike were scrambling to try and get their content seen by those who follow them. Don't forget to turn on your post notifications!
Of course, the head honchos at Instagram weren't into the idea that you could pay a small fee to companies like Instagress (RIP) to like and comment on images for you. They started shadow-banning users who repetitively used the same hashtags over and over and over again, and now, the new algorithm is seeking to cut down on comment pods, single-emoji comments (actually am a fan of this change tbh), and general spammy behaviour, like apparently editing your caption under 24 hour after you have posted an image.
Naturally, the fact that the algorithm favours popular content literally means that those of us who don't have an abbreviated follower count, are going to be seen less and less (See this post by make-up brand, Anastasia Beverly Hills which summarises the situation currently). Continuing to support the back door shady behaviour by users to trick the system into giving them more likes, because we all know, you're work is only as good as the number of likes and followers you have.
I like to tell people that Instagram is, in a way, killing creativity. Especially amongst photographic groups. There are travel trends, where photographers will literally visit a beautiful place purely because it is "instagrammable" or, if your niche is working with fit models with peachy asses, you probably also have a strong following because sex and popularity (unfortunately) still sells. As a result, users and creators alike are seeing the same boring shit over and over again because it works. It feeds the algorithm but halts innovation.
That isn't to say that there aren't very cool people doing amazing things, but I can guarantee you, that the ones who are innovating and changing the space are the ones who already have a voice. For the rest of us, we get to watch as our average rate of likes per image falls from 800 to a pathetic 23.
At some point (hopefully soon) Instagram is going to die
Another really great reason to not put all of your eggs in one basket when it comes to social media is, that just like Myspace and Flickr, Instagram's day will come. When that day arrives, you want to make sure that whatever following you may have, or whatever business you run, is transferable to other platforms. This is why having a good website and email list is SO FRIGGEN IMPORTANT and something I always suggest to my new clients.
While you might think that Instagram is the be all and end all when it comes to social media, there are many other avenues that I will personally preference in order to find work. Ones that are more stable. Think outside of the box, where are the other places that people hang out? Tap into those markets, do it well, and invest your time (very important) and you will eventually start seeing a return. Sure, it might not be as instant or guaranteed as what you might be currently getting on Instagram, but if you're passionate about what you do and want to ensure longevity, I can assure you it's worth it.
And if you're wondering what my primary method of gaining new clients is, it's through word of mouth. I don't even advertise online.
With the number of photographers literally complaining about the platform daily, it is likely that we will soon see a new place for us to share our work in the very near future. Just as Deviantart and Flickr came before Instagram, soon the community will shift and change, this time hopefully for the better. Until then, don't go basing your self-worth on statistics.
In saying all of that...
Never discount Instagram in its entirety. If you don't have an account yet, or you have one but don't see the engagement you want, don't give up. Depending on your field of work, it still might be important for you to have a presence on there, even if it is a small one. At the end of the day, you need to decide what channels and avenues best suit you and your goals and sometimes that might be having an account that's mildly updated, but not one that you spend hours obsessing over. And I highly recommend not getting too stressed about social media in general. Ever.
So when people ask me what I think they should do if they want to run a successful photography business, I say to get creative. Take that as you may.
And in the meantime, I'll just be watching all the drama on Instagram unfold as I continue to test, re-test and evaluate this new algorithm for my clients.
For further reading you can read this article I wrote in 2017 which talks more about the ethics of advertising on Instagram and the challenges social media managers face. This very long report by the New York Times that uncovers the dark truth about purchasing followers. This nice summary of the new algorithm and what you can do about it by The Pigeon Letters. And lastly, this letter of complaint by the photographer, Joe Shutter.
If you have any more links that you think I should read about this topic, or perhaps some thoughts of your own, feel free to leave a comment below! I like my opinions to be challenged.