it's complicated: my love/hate relationship with Instagram
my two cents on the pesky "algorithm" changes
+ how I found a healthier way to approach the platform
I was compelled to write a little bit about this after a series of conversations I've had with all sorts of people about "Instagram lately". My conversations have been mostly with creatives who span across different mediums, people who are using it for different audiences and ultimately have different end goals for their respective business or services, but the same goal on Instagram- growth! At times it feels like sort of an impossible goal to reach, if it's even worth reaching at all.
As a professional photographer, and someone who teeters the line of "content creator" occasionally, I feel like my relationship with Instagram is really complicated.
It always sort of felt that way, but it didn't feel unhealthy complicated until this past year. When I went freelance, I got really nervous about a lot of things. I wasn't nervous about my talent as a photographer, my ability to market myself, or my success with one-on-one meetings. My confidence was at an all time high there. I was nervous, and started freaking out a little about Instagram. That's weird right? Let me explain. I was one of the early users of Instagram, but not the earliest, and it's not a platform I feel like I've ever fully embraced, in terms of "the formula". I was a featured user a few years ago, and could have probably run with that momentum. I went from 5K to 20ish K in a matter of days, and thought to myself wow- this is amazing! But I actively, vehemently avoided the formula. It doesn't mean I didn't take what I was posting seriously, but I didn't use hashtags, I didn't really post in any sort of strategic way, I just posted what I wanted, and in turn my following reached a plateau. I was totally okay with that before my oh my god I'm doing it wrong, Instagram-freak out.
As of now my work spans multiple categories, and that's where I'm happiest. Food, people, travel, focusing on women, focusing on moments and details. The joy that I get out of my work, is that it encapsulates many moods and feelings across the board, and it's always changing depending on the project. Starting Better Happier coincided with the early stages of my Instagram use, but as I said I was never strategic about doubling down on the whole- grow your following, use appropriate hashtags, etc. until it was too late. I always felt like my energy was best spent here at Better Happier and seeking out work on a larger scale. I've found to some extent, over the years that often when I try to put that larger work in a cohesive square on Instagram, even if it's sharing imagery from Better Happier, it often feels awkward, especially if I'm trying something new, or posting something that I just inherently know will not perform well. Eventually this would cause me to overanalyze the existence of certain pictures until I move onto uploading my next frame, which seems.... creatively unhealthy.
As I was beginning to think more specifically about cohesion, reach, engagement, am I doing this right? I thought, I've actually probably been doing this all wrong the whole time. My engagement in general went way, way down after the algorithm change, and my first brush with feeling anxious about it was about a year ago. Because I had never been formulaic, there wasn't a ton of consistency in the way that I chose to post. I noticed a drastic shift, and I thought to myself -how are people keeping up with this change? but I tried hard not to get too caught up in it then, and tried not to care as much about how outwardly popular my content was on the platform.
That laissez-faire attitude fell apart once I had more dedicated time to really think about it strategically, and that's when panic set in full force. Our content was changing on Better Happier, the way I wanted to share content was changing, and I felt like I was grabbing at straws to make something work. I suddenly felt like I really dropped the ball on Instagram years back, and had wasted all this time curating my feed in all the wrong ways, focusing on the wrong things. With a new frantic energy to try to correct the missed opportunity, I tried to master all the things they tell you to do to "win the Instagram game". Trying to stay on top of the algorithm change, making sure I was posting cohesively, systematically, at the right time, with the right content, for the right people? It's exhausting. Sponsored posts and even the prospect of sponsored posts started making me feel uncertain, especially when I wasn't 100% sure about the collaboration being an appropriate fit. Even more than that, the biggest thing that felt unhealthy for me was that constant questioning of content- Should I post it? Should I not? Should I wait? Why isn't it doing better? Why is this one doing so well? It's so similar to this! What am I doing wrong?
With all of that being said, here's my two cents on where I landed with the whole thing,
if you care to keep reading on...
I would say I spent about 6 months paying really close attention to the statistics, analyzing engagement, figuring out what worked and what didn't, and at the end of it... I felt depleted, and I found myself questioning if the time spent worrying about it was worth the return. The answer? I really don't think so. Not at all. I also began to feel like it massively changes the creative conversation you have with yourself. Are you taking pictures you want to take? Or are you taking pictures that will fit seamlessly into your cohesive Instagram look. I think certain images work really well on certain platforms, and terribly on another, and if creating work gets so specific to a particular platform- how versatile is that work when the platform ceases to exist? Or changes and evolves, as everything does?
I don't know if "hacking the algorithm" is all it's cracked up to be, or maybe more appropriately- worth your time and energy. The reason I say this, is because I did the thing that I think a lot of people are doing right now. You download all of the Instagram analytical apps, you look at all the data, you decide when the optimum time is to really strike while the iron is hot, while your followers are most likely to see what you're posting. I've done it all of the ways, and I have to tell you, it's still a crap shoot. My "prime times" change day to day drastically, to the point where I question how accurate they are, because even when I ignore my impulses to post and really give it a listen, the engagement is all over the place.
Now that Instagram is heavier on the advertising, heavier on the sponsored posts, and heavier handed with suggesting accounts directly in your feed, it's losing the original engagement we used to have with it, and with that, our attention. Well maybe not yours, but I know for a fact it's losing mine. I don't think I'm blazing any trails here with these feelings about the app, but I do wonder if as many people quietly feel this way about it all as I do...
but Why, oh why do I still love it?
• Inspiration! I have found, and continue to find SO MANY interesting people, brands, food, so many things through this platform. I still constantly feel inspired from scrolling through, or seeing a new tag of someone or something I haven't discovered yet. It's incredible.
• The core reason of why I love the platform still stands, I love sharing and displaying new work in an organized way. Particularly snapshots of my day-to-day.
• I love looking back at my feed as a sort of time machine. So much has changed. So much has stayed the same. It's my favorite way to view that progression apart from scrolling through Better Happier posts.
• I still LOVE curating my feed. Just maybe not as militantly as some.
Why do I hate it?
• It has the ability to make you have your own popularity contest with yourself, which I don't necessarily think is healthy in any way shape or form. You question if you should post things that are this vibe, or that vibe based on likes, rather than if you wanted to post it, because YOU liked it.
• It has turned into a game that I'm not interested in playing. I want to post this beautiful photo now, but 4 different articles and 3 apps have told me it'll get more likes if I wait until tomorrow at 8:13 PM. Do I listen to them? Do I freewheel it and hope for the best? Will I regret this decision 47 seconds after I hit post? Gah.
• The algorithm change to a non-linear timeline continues to drive me insane. I hate having to dig to find my friends, and those whose content I used to see all the time. Usually I just miss their posts altogether and then have to play catch up later on. It's a little frustrating. Also, content from 3 days ago but nothing that's been posted since? Come on.
Alright then miss-has-a-lot-of-feelings, what did you actually do to get a little more grounded
when it comes to all of this?
• I now post a picture and leave it alone. I don't hit refresh 10 times to make sure it's "doing well". I tend to leave my phone away from where I am, put it out of sight, or don't engage with the app for a while after I've posted. Why? Because I don't want to second guess posting something I wanted to post based on how quickly it's gaining likes. If I chose to post it, I posted it for a reason.
• I've gone back to seeing it as what it was for me in the beginning, a snapshot, an extension of the work I create elsewhere. It's not my portfolio, and it can be whatever I want it to be, without worrying about "engagement".
• I post less often.
• I can say with certainty that because digital content is evolving all the time, my time is definitely better spent here, where I've created a real nook amongst the vast web to share, brainstorm, talk and curate in a way that has always felt like a natural outlet, an extension of the pictures I love to take and the home that we've made. I've never once had an ounce of anxiety over engagement on this journal, and I think that's an important detail for me to remember.
a not-very-formal conclusion
• I've embraced, and LOVE using stories. It helps keep everything feeling a little more *real* while the feed stays curated.
• Time spent on insta-specific content has gone wayyyyy down for me. I don't think the time I spent working on those pictures, or the time I spent worrying if they were insta-friendly was necessarily worth it.
• I forced myself to rethink the way I handle sponsored content. It's definitely a work in progress, but I've said "no thank you" to almost everything that has come my way in 2018, and it feels amazing. I'm only saying yes to collaborations that are a great fit.
• Disassociating likes with how "good" a photo is. Some of my least favorite photos, or photos I assumed would do poorly have the most likes.
• I realized that engagement with the people who actually want to follow what I do on Better Happier, or in my other work, is far more important than image likes. Which means I'm focusing on posting what I want, when I want. Still has all of the curation, but it's lacking all of the pressure.
Whew! That was a mouthful.
Here's to Better, Happier relationships with our beloved Instagram feeds moving forward. I'm super curious if you have thoughts + feelings on this! Feel free to leave a comment on the post if you do.