Instagram is driving me a bit crazy lately. Some days I'm glued to my phone screen blissfully catching up with what friends all over the world, and other days I feel like throwing said phone out of the window in frustration.
I downloaded and joined Instagram several years ago, but didn't really know what to do with it other than apply all sorts of artificial filters to a few photos for a bit of fun. It wasn't until 2015 that I discovered the community aspect of Instagram, started following a few people, and was delighted when they followed me back. This also introduced me to a couple of lovely hashtag-based community projects that I still join in with today, and gave a bit of focus to my photo sharing, and in turn the words I was sharing alongside those images.
Back in the good old days IG would show you all of your friends' posts in chronological order, so you knew what all your UK friends were eating for breakfast while you ate yours, but your Aussie pals were winding down for the evening, and the Americans were still tucked up in bed. The world made sense. Things happened in real time, and you knew who was likely to be around to chat with by commenting on each other's posts, and who would be catching up later in the day.
Then, the insta-world changed. They introduced The Algorithm. Now I'm not going to pretend to even vaguely understand the ins and outs and technical details of how it works, but apparently it's supposed to show you the posts it thinks you're most likely to want to see first, based on previous interactions, bumping the not-so-worried-abouts further down your feed. So first of all this messed up the chronological thing - suddenly the first posts I'm seeing are from people on the other side of the world who posted them hours ago, but the people whose breakfasts I want to know about don't show up until after lunch. OK, fine, it was a pain to begin with, but we've more or less got used to it, or we know to go and find our breakfast friends directly from their profile page. At least you were still seeing everyone's posts eventually.
In recent months things have got even more interesting/annoying/angry-making/depressing. Instagram's algorithms have been extended to hashtags, and to who gets shown your posts at all. Now it can be days before I realise I haven't seen someone for a while, only to discover that they've been posting regular as clockwork, but the insta-gods haven't seen fit to include them in my feed. Rude. The flip side of this of course, is that MY posts also aren't getting seen by as many people. And as part of my insta-mission is to use it as a platform for my business, sharing blog posts and shop updates, this really isn't helping me keep in touch with my audience.
There's been a lot of speculation about so-called 'shadow bans' where Instagram effectively makes your posts disappear if it thinks you're spamming particular hashtags - or that's my basic understanding of it - thereby again making you invisible to friends, customers, and potential new followers. Apparently Instagram says this isn't actually a thing, but that they are constantly tweaking things behind the scenes to give their exponentially growing audience the experience it wants. Hmmm.
It's noticeable that many people are seeing drastic drops in engagement - fewer likes and comments - combined with the occasional spike in activity if/when they post something that Instagram likes. I've seen this with my own posts - where a few months ago nearly every post would manage to cross the 100 likes barrier, and some were heading for 200, now I'm lucky if some even get 50, but then a picture of some flowers is suddenly crossing that 100 mark again.
It can be incredibly demotivating to have photos you love, and words you want to share, or even questions you're seeking advice and answers to, not get the response you were hoping for, and to see it impacting things elsewhere, like fewer people reading my blog posts or finding my Etsy shop. But perhaps even more than that, the sense of community is fading away. If friends don't see what you're posting until hours, or in some cases apparently days, later, the immediate interaction around an issue is gone. Celebrations or bad days lose their importance, as there's no-one there to share them with in the moment.
I try not to obsess over the 'numbers' too much, and instead be grateful for the engagement that does come, the people who leave comments or hit the little heart button, and the few new followers each week (ignoring the ones that disappear almost as quickly - the curse of the follow/unfollow bots). And I try to engage as much as I can too, leaving comments for friends, or searching through hashtags for posts that inspire me and new people to connect with. Not every day, sometimes it's just too frustrating, but when I'm in the right frame of mind it can be wonderful to spend some time seeking out new photographic styles, or words that make me think.
I've seen people with quite big accounts (i.e hundreds of thousands of followers) bemoaning the changes and how quiet their corner of the insta-verse feels, and even taking breaks and not posting for several days in an attempt to 'reset' whatever algorithmic bugs might be blighting them. Of course many people won't mind at all any changes that have happened, or perhaps haven't even noticed them, because Instagram serves a different purpose for them, and that's absolutely fine, and perhaps even a sensible attitude to take.
Personally, I'm going to keep using Instagram, keep posting what I want to post when I want to post it, and keep doing what I can to foster that sense of community and friendship that I came to love before. Some days I don't feel like scrolling through a dozen hashtags and engaging with a load of new people; some days I might post three times but others only once; some days I might see a post get hundreds of likes and another hardly any. And I'm trying to be OK with all of that, to let things ebb and flow naturally, and to not get too drawn in by advice on what you 'should' post. I want to share my thoughts and opinions freely and in my true voice, I want to share photos of whatever catches my eye, I want to see posts from friends to know what's going on in their lives, and I want to be able to find new connections that inspire me. And I want to do all this in my own way, in a way that feels good and right, and to trust that my right people will also find me and help me maintain that sense of shared creativity and community.
However, if you're not already following me on Instagram I'd love for you to drop in and say hi, perhaps check out a few of my posts, and let me see what you're up to - you can find me here.