Algorithm is Gonna' Get You
How Instagram Failed the Creative Class
Last February I tweeted an unspeakable tweet: I publicly admitted that I wanted to quit Instagram before 2021. This statement shamefully ran off my fingertips. It felt stupid and vulnerable to admit the app wasn’t and hadn’t been working for me for some time. But I’ve noticed I’m not alone. Everyone I know loves to gripe about IG; it is everyone’s toxic partner. Even those that have jumped through hoops for the algorithm, the ones who seem to be winning, hate it too. How did this happen, and is it time to jump ship?
The Social Stock Market
This collective hatred is unfortunately not new news, my fellow creatives. Five years ago I wrote about the creative class gentrifying social media spaces, proving to brands, celebs, and our parents that IG was the place to be. This multi-billion user platform started innocuously enough as a simple place to share meals, trips, and sleeping pets. When Facebook acquired Instagram for a cool billion dollars in 2012, and both of its co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger continued to work because they loved what they built. Founders that remain the helm after an acquisition don’t walk away from their projects easily. But when Systrom and Krieger left the company in 2018, my ears perked up. Both took diplomatic positions in follow-up interviews, but it was clear that Instagram had taken on an entirely different life of its own.
Raising the Stakes, Playing the House
Instagram’s platform created a codependency upon the creative class to innovate. You could say we gentrified a vast and nebulous virtual landscape, proving the platform had staying power as well as buying power. The creative class overlaps marginalized groups that traditionally transform unwanted parts of a physical city into a vibrant and thriving community. Money usually follows, since the rich enjoy the benefits of transformation without the struggle of the process. And in the Wild West of the web, Systrom and Kreiger knew a photo sharing app was the key to connection, but it took artists to unlock the process behind it. It wasn’t long before brands, celebrities, and parents were seduced by exotic photos from Bali and the attainable marble topped counters of urban coffee shops.
But it came at a cost: we were generating social capital in return for free play on the app. And we accrued invisible debt. Creators talk about Instagram as a game, a conversation forever circling “gaming the algorithm.” But the game is less like monopoly and more like poker. The house always wins.
When I joined the app in 2011, late-early by some standards, the exchange rate was 1:1 for engagement. If I posted, everyone in my network would see it the moment I published. My numbers were modest by visual artist standard, but my engagement was a crisp 30%. Around 2017 I noticed a distinct drop in activity which marginally increased with posting consistently, then increased posting, then commenting, then adapting to new features… I played by the rules and my engagement tanked to a scant 15%. When an art-sharing site with just under 1 million followers asked me to guest post in 2018, I was shocked: their analytics mirrored mine on a good day. I had .0015% of their follower base. It was then I realized IG’s vanity metrics are a pyramid scheme.
Pay for ads? You get views. Sell a product in-app? More views. Instagram rewards these users with more exposure because they are helping collect specified datasets. User spending habits is powerful information. This seems reasonable enough until you consider the app also punishes users for not churning.
Groomed for Success
Illustrator Rachel Reichenbach published an article detailing Instagram’s metrics for engagement for rewarding and punishing users based on how often they post to the platform. This shook the internet because it confirmed everything artists intuitively knew to be true. This was no longer the cry of a spurned artist; this was reality.
Attaining virality is a veiled curse in that creators who strike internet gold become glorified contractors for Instagram. “The algorithm likes consistency and patterns. breaking that pattern make it mad :(,” Rachel writes. The posting schedule below is a disaster, a reasonable schedule for a full-time marketing firm, not an independent creative in a pandemic. Deviation from this schedule harms your score and reduces visibility.
While we’re being groomed to duke it out with each other, others are fostering hatred and finding reward. IG doesn’t have an issue docking creatives for not hustling harder, and it has zero problems boosting white supremacist and QAnon influencers.
It needs to be said: the near-toppling of American democracy is good for Facebook business.
This Buzzfeed news article details the rise of Little Miss Patriot, a Q-anon propaganda account aimed at white influencers, but also uncovers a fast track to IG virality. If you are willing to share hatred and conspiracy, the app is happy to boost you.
“Alexis’s extremely fast growth — on Instagram, she once claimed that she’d amassed almost 100,000 followers in 15 days — is seemingly attributed to her content. It also proves the existence of a pool of people who are eager to consume and believe in that content.”
This article is infuriating for many reasons but becomes more chilling when recalling the app-wide hashtag freeze a month leading up to the 2020 election. Instagram put a full-stop on all tags to “deter the spread of misinformation,” despite boosting accounts and tags known to spread the conspiracies that led to insurrection. Rather than attack the source, this app is penalized everyone, especially those relying on the platform for business. Sex workers, BIPOC activists, and femxle creators have reported heightened bans and account suspensions in 2020, yet white supremacist accounts spread freely with help from the algorithm. This is abysmally wrong.
Community over Competition
It’s no wonder this popular statement made its rounds on Instagram. At face value it never felt quite right, because the statement was about sacrificing personal individuality in exchange for communal approval. Yet the knife twisted the other way, Instagram was grooming us for competition with each other. Those that were willing to play the game were rewarded with virality, which is classism created for digital spaces. Those that were predictable and consistent were considered trustworthy to be platformed. But often that went horribly, horribly wrong.
At first I followed IRL friends, people with different interests than myself. I wanted to learn and was curious about the world I couldn’t directly see, taste, or touch. Someone else’s everyday was appealing to me. As my account became a business, there was more pressure to connect with like-minded accounts because this would raise my analytics. Like minded accounts meant other designers, specifically lettering. It was seen as impolite to not reciprocate a following.
And with that I unintentionally signed up to be at work any time I opened my phone.
Growth hacks were wildly speculative and always involved following like accounts to generate more interest and numbers. Niche tags were densely populated to promote sameness. I went from knowing one pie artist to an entire industry of people making fancy-ass pies. The drama between pre-bake and post-bake creators was unmatched. Generating niche communities seemed brilliant from a consumer’s perspective, but it commoditized creators at an alarming rate. We began to write cultural norms in stone.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Man IG really said "we'll give you free exposure if you work for us full time" and we fell for it</p>— Jen Bartel (@heyjenbartel) <a href="
22, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
I remember when Instagram announced that the algorithm would begin to track our interests based on our likes. And rather than supporting my peers with 100% of my best wishes, I withheld liking their work because I didn’t want to have to look at more work in a recreational app. My work requests become less personal and more templated. They could find someone else cheaper and worse that would play by their rules. The upper hand was gone. Opening the app was exhausting, as I was reminded how much I wasn’t working every time I opened it. The algorithm assumed I wanted to see these things. A constant push of “YES,” never “No thx,” there was no way to opt out. As Facebook tightened the reins on Instagram, I noticed two things: Instagram became more and more like Facebook, and I was having less and less fun.
I have watched the lurid promise of virality seduce my colleagues into fearful, harmful, and dangerous behavior. Several of my fellow artists used their influence on the Internet to bully me a couple years ago. I have watched professionals trick younger, vulnerable artists into creating for exposure after forming a grassroots campaign against large companies for asking the same behavior of them. I have had colleagues cut me out of businesses I helped them grow because I did not display enough interest in follower analytics. I have watched many in my industry go all-in on one platform, hoping it would sustain them. But this platform is the Titanic, and we can choose not to be chained to the hull.
Finding our artistic voices happen by drawing inward, by looking within our own experiences. Yes we travel, we meet new people, and learn new hobbies. Creativity asks us to examine our observations and translate them to others. But self reflection isn’t capitalistic, which dangles a promise of global renown in one of humanity’s largest commerce markets. A pond full of people who aren’t certain if they’ll ever pay back their college loans are willing to play the game. IG requires desperation and insecurity to make virality attractive. This constant pressure is framed as getting ahead.
The fact that Instagram both rewards and punishes means it built a competitive system. A system devoid of competition would be one that simply rewarded or incentivized a good behavior. Inaction would be neutral or create no levity. But punishment, punishment is what drives us to match these insane tasks and unbelievable hours. It’s what keeps people circulating on this app, and it encourages creators to trade pieces of themselves, their inner knowing and growth trajectory, for a fast track to everyday stardom. No wonder influencers can burn out after “doing something they love.” This turns our colleagues into gatekeepers.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">It is also interesting to note how the gate keepers were agents and ppl used social media to circumvent that out of need to find work (IMO) and the keepers are now ppl with a social following (me, on insta not here lol), and it is time to circumvent THAT - idk how, but it is time</p>— Amber Vittoria (@amber_vittoria) <a href="
21, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Those willing to play the game don’t have the time to evolve their craft. To disinvest from the platform means losing a monolith of effort, potentially years from one’s career, which is why so many choose to participate. They are stuck. For this reason, we cannot encourage students to build a following before they find a voice. From that standpoint they will never evolve and will be too fearful to change because their motivator is external validation. Whether we realize it or not, we are churning our industry, ourselves, and future creatives into dust.
An Artist’s Leverage
As for a solution, many of us are leaving the platform for greener pastures. Creators flock to Tik-tok to ply their chances at the Creator Fund. Snapchat is throwing money at anyone willing to go viral on their platform, which feels desperate and gives us a clue to the solution. A company built on content sharing is dependent on content generation. So they pushed us. But they pushed too hard.
What can you do?
Honestly look at your analytics. When was the last time you had a good job, a promising lead, or a significant push from IG? If the last year looks abysmal, take it as a sign. As someone who left Facebook six years ago, I don’t miss it. I don’t think about what I’ve lost because I didn’t gain anything by staying. People who want to find you will keep your email, follow you elsewhere. There are other platforms that will give you the visibility you need and deserve.
Take a practice break. I left for eight months and haven’t regretted having more time or the panic attacks I’d have opening the app. It started as a week, a month, two months, and grew. Imagine what you could do with 5-7 hours of your day that aren’t devoted to scrolling. I’ve started putting more energy in places like Pinterest, Substack, Tik-tok, and my own website. There are so many other places to go. As with financial stocks, we should invest in multiple places so we avoid total loss if one of the platforms fails.
Rethink your power. You have what large companies want: the power to create something from nothing/very little. You possess skills and talents that cannot be AI-generated. Big tech knows you are the energy source and is exploiting your lack of awareness by promising you a dim room in which to shine. Yes, this app is free, but it comes with many hidden costs. That said, what are you asking for in return?
Recount the cost. Did you know Instagram’s updated terms of service gives them the right to create derivatives of your work? They are heavily monitoring your location, where you shop irl? Were you aware of the ambiguity around your user name coordinating with your URL, that they *might* own it now? There are so many articles on the new terms of service, do a dive and ask yourself if you still want to play once you know what they’re demanding of you.
Instagram is a place I look back on fondly, in the distant past. I don’t know how sustainable this marketplace will be, but I refuse to wait around to find out. If this works for you, please stay and reap whatever benefits you can, but so many of us would agree it has lost its luster. This app is reminiscent of a bad ex. I consider the great times we shared, those fabulous vacations and restaurants, both of us smiling. Yet I’m reminded of the everyday, how I gave up little pieces of myself through gritted teeth because this is how things were supposed to look.