thoughts on Instagram
I would love to start this first real post, article, newsletter, whatever you want to call it, with people always ask me, but as much as I like a good hyperbole this would be a bit of a stretch.
Most people don’t ask me anything, ever, but some do, assuming that I know, and I guess I sometimes do, more about some things than others (and more than some people but less than others). More often than not though I don’t, and anyhow, what I do know to be true for me might not be so for you, so you’ll have to take whatever I’m going to tell you with a pinch of salt.
I’m going to tell you anyway, and I thought I will start with a really, really long and meandering paragraph so that you know what you are getting yourself into right from the beginning and can quit before it’s too late. You’ve been warned.
One but not the only reason that made me change from my old and very infrequent newsletter (containing literally nothing but news, hence its infrequency) back to more of a long-form blog type format is the mess that Instagram is in at the moment (and yes, people do ask about this quite frequently these days).
If you expect a scathing indictment of Instagram, I have to disappoint you. I don’t like Meta, quit Facebook many, many years ago, and wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial stick if my life (or rather livelihood) depended on it, but I do use both WhatsApp and IG on a daily basis and am mostly ok with it.
I don’t like the amount of advertising, definitely not the kind of advertising I’m getting most of the time (it can be spot-on sometimes), but I know that (almost) nothing in life is free, definitely nothing that operates on the scale of IG, so short of paying for an add-free version, something I would happily do, I don’t think any of us should complain.
And the dreaded algorithm? Aside from the fact that there is a little used and even less advertised (the irony!) setting that lets you turn your feed back to its add-free, chronologic glory, I don’t believe the algorithm is the problem.
Side note: I consider hashtags not working properly since this summer a separate, and yes, very annoying problem. But IG is rolling out major software updates and changes to its over one billion (!) users which always causes issues, and I hope (trust, maybe naively so) that this will get resolved sooner or later.
The problem is numbers: too many people posting too much stuff following too many accounts. Both attention and time are finite resources, and we have been spreading them thinner and thinner for years. I know this to be true for myself. I used to follow maybe a couple of hundred accounts in the beginning, people who didn’t necessarily post every day, definitely not multiple times a day, so a chronologic feed was fine. Even with half the accounts on the other side of the globe, posting in the middle of my night, I could keep up.
Then the numbers went up. At one point I was following almost 1000 accounts on my personal account alone, most of which had started posting more frequently. That’s potentially 1000+ images to look at a day! Every day! Seven days a week! Just think about this! One thousand images a day. On one social media app alone. Most of us are also active on other social media platforms (have to be) or have multiple IG accounts. All of this is quite literally insane. Even without an algorithm limiting (filtering?) what I see I would miss most of what’s going on.
I have three IG accounts, one garden-variety standard account and two creator accounts. The latter, from what I can tell, give you access to a ton of data (and tools to monetize your content of course) but otherwise work just the same as a regular account. The data is both entirely useless (for people who don’t run IG as a business) and very interesting. What it shows very clearly is that engagement is down and dying. People still glance at whatever we post but less and less slow down enough to like or comment. According to a quick online search, the average engagement rate per post is down to well under 1% in 2022. And without trying to sound pedantic, that means that for everyone whose engagement rate is higher than that there are lots of people whose engagement rates have to be even lower than one measly percent. That’s how averages work.
IG doesn’t share details about its algorithms or user data, so whenever you find numbers like the above mentioned 1% it’s worth thinking about where they come from. They’re not necessarily wrong, but I’d take them with the same pinch of salt that you should sprinkle generously over everything I’m saying right now, right here. The same goes for whatever conclusions are being drawn.
IG’s algorithms were an imperfect but necessary response to the growing amount of data being generated and the way the majority of us started using the app. Like a lot of people of a certain age, ahem, I am not on IG all day long but only check a few times a day, usually in the morning and evening, and the algorithm makes sure that I don’t see the same people who happen to post content at that time again and again. I now keep the number of accounts I follow relatively (!?) low, I’m down to around 600, and follow a small but growing number of hashtags instead (to keep an eye on what and who is new). And I make full use of both the Favorites and Close Friends features. People I really don’t want to lose sight of are added to either one of these lists and always show up in my feed no matter when I look. I let the algorithm handle the rest.
I think we should all be very clear about what’s going on: by having signed up to a free service that connects the globe, we became the product, not the customers. What’s being traded and sold on social media is our attention, and competition for it is stiff. I too miss the good old early days and attitudes of Friendster, Six Degrees (I wasn’t around to use them, I’m not that old!) and MySpace, but these days are over and won’t be coming back. Any new social media platform that isn’t going nieche, and there will be new ones, will follow a similar business model, will need and want to make money, will therefore evolve, and might turn into something we like less and less, much like IG did.
The thing worth thinking about it not what’s happening with IG but why it is happening, and to draw conclusions from that. Otherwise, we risk rushing into something seemingly new but by behaving the same way as before will recreate the same problems.
The response to less attention is not more content, or more regular content, or reels, it’s better and more relevant content. (It’s also what people who actually do know have been saying for decades.)
There is a running joke among many artists that the pieces we ourselves like best and are really proud of always do poorly. So we blame the algorithm. I don’t check IG statistics often because I don’t want to get (too) caught up in numbers but let me tell you, it’s not the algorithm. The engagement rate the way I use it, the percentage of people who look at something and respond to it be either liking or commenting (IG might calculate this differently, no one knows) varies hugely from post to post and day to day. Some of it can be explained away by external factors, people seem to have more time on Sunday afternoons than Monday mornings, but most of it is down to the quality of what I post. If people like what I do, they respond no matter when I post (something the algorithm picks up on and rewards), if they don’t, well, they don’t (something the algorithm most likely ignores), and I’d be a fool if I’d blame anyone but myself. Even though blame isn’t the right approach either. Because as an artist, not as a social media content creator, as an artist, who or what am I creating for? Likes, comments and shares? Myself? Both?
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