I joined the Instagram community about a month before I got married in late 2012. I didn’t have a direction for it, I had been a wedding photographer for about 3 years at that point and was mostly curious. Instagram had been something I almost exclusively made fun of because of the types of things people were really into showing off to the world… like every meal they ever ate. My life wasn’t a whole lot more interesting then but I mostly wanted a place to document some fun new things in my married life.
I didn’t start taking it seriously until 2014 when I decided to spend more time editing my mobile pictures and trying to showcase myself as someone who knows what they’re doing with a camera. I also decided to post every day just to challenge myself creatively and for a discipline. Soon after I was featured as a ‘suggested user’ (remember the badge?… ahh the good ol’ days) and then my audience went from a few thousand to almost 20 thousand in a couple weeks. Aside from being a huge blast of endorphins and ego-boost it also helped me to really research how to use it best and how to craft a feed.
Fast-forward, now I can’t go a week without hearing some drama about someone else who hates the algorithm, considers quitting, ‘shadowbans’, fake followers, scamming companies, banned accounts, new features stolen from other platforms, blah blah blah.
So, I reached out to some seasoned pros to get their opinions about the platform. It’s good to listen widely, to spread out and ask reputable people from various stages in the profession. I asked a few good friends who also happen to be some really respected names on Instagram, and even more broadly, in the photo community. Here’s what they had to say. Glean the wisdom… go on, glean.
How long have you been using Instagram?
@benjhaisch – I just scrolled allllll the way to the end of my Instagram and saw that my first post was in August of 2011.
@bensasso – Don’t you dare make me scroll all the way back to actually find out. No idea, maybe 7 years?
@jeremycowart – I’ve been on Instagram since the very, very beginning . I was on so early that people would mock my use of it haha. I was featured early and often but then I took 4 years away from it basically to focus on building our own social network (OKDOTHIS). I regret moving away from it for obvious reasons, haha.
@itsbigben – I have been using Instagram since early 2013 for fun, but I started using it for photography in November 2015.
@katchsilva – Honestly not entirely sure, but I think I made my first account in 2010/2011 but used it for personal random stuff for a couple of years before switching over to photo stuff.
At it’s best instagram is…?
Haisch – An amazing creative outlet that allows me to share my work and connect with others who think/feel/value the same things.
Sasso – A community filled with inspiration, creativity, and pictures of peoples food.
Cowart – It’s another tool. Tools can be used for good or bad. I think at it’s best, it can be a beautiful community. That sounds so cliche and obvious but it’s true. You really do feel a huge sense of community on Instagram.
BigBen – At it’s best IG is a community of creative people constantly challenging one another to push to that next level, encouraged each other daily and constructively criticizing when asked.
Silva – A great way to connect with people/new friends/potential clients who you’d otherwise never get to meet.
At it’s worst, Instagram is…?
Haisch – An inauthentic marketing machine that ends up being a race to the bottom.
Sasso – Soul sucking, a perfect place to see photos that are way better than any I’ve taken, and pictures of peoples food.
Cowart – Ah, so many things. Everyone is only showing their life highlights (which we all know) but that really needs to a nasty environment of comparison, where we all can tend to feel depressed because our lives aren’t as good or as pretty as others. I think it affects everyone to some degree. I feel bad for younger people that have to deal with this. You’re already insecure as a young person but the world of social media comparisons only amplifies that. I’m really glad I didn’t have social media as a teenager haha.
BigBen – At it’s worst it is a competition and a place where everyone brings one another down, always climbing the ladder, clawing for that top spot.
Silva – Just a game of popularity. Or maybe a game of numbers is a better way to put it. And an annoying necessary evil for business. (not complaining though!)
In your experience what is the biggest difference between the Instagram platform now and when you started?
Haisch – It’s funny because some of the things I miss about Instagram now are the things that kept me from signing up in the first place. When I first joined [after months of a friend telling me I was an idiot for not making an account] Instagram was still a lot of about the basic fun of being creative with the limitations of mobile photography. That being said, I was a professional photographer and my DSLR photos were substantially higher in quality than what my iPhone 4 could produce at the time.
I remember when I first started beta testing VSCOcam in 2012 and finally had something that felt a lot more like my work than the fake light leaks and toy camera style filters that were available before then. In the years since then, Instagram has changed so much from a “post what your doing right now with minimal editing on your iPhone” to an incredibly curated selection of images that are rarely taken with a mobile device and are almost never posted in the moment by most photographers. It’s moved from a private journal of sorts to a continually evolving portfolio that is rarely as spontaneous and authentic as the hashtags posted in the first comment would lead you to believe.
Sasso – The biggest difference for me is how I treat it. When I first got on it, I saw it only as a way to share my personality. I would share images of what I was up to, etc but never my actual work. Now I view it as a great way to share both my work and my personality. It’s become more engaging than I ever thought it would.
Cowart – It’s obviously evolved over time. The Facebook buyout changed a lot. It’s easy to complain about that and many people are but I don’t mind it. Things change, technology changes. I’ve actually enjoyed all the changes they’ve made over the years. I think them copying Snapchat is pretty lame but it’s also not surprising whatsoever. As a user, I don’t mind because I’d rather use one platform than multiple platforms.
BigBen – The biggest difference between IG in 2013 and IG now is that it’s been a career-maker for countless artists. Sure the app is changed, and the way people use it has changed, but the biggest measurable difference is that it’s changed the face of marketing and changed the lives countless creative people. Back in 2013 we never said term “social media influencer,” or at least I never heard it.
Silva – The fact that its no longer chronological is definitely the worst change/difference, as far as function. As far as my personal experience with it, the biggest change is that I never even dreamed it would be such an important business tool when I first made an account 7 years ago!
What is your opinion on buying likes/followers and then charging companies higher rates based on those numbers?
Haisch – I mean, I get it, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing. Everyone has to put food on the table and if that’s what works to do that for you, go for it. That being said, it couldn’t be further from how I want to run my business in terms of marketing with that app. If my engagement drops like crazy to a point where it’s ineffective, I’ll find another way.
Sasso – Silly. It’s the same as lying on your resume.
Cowart – It’s absurd. It’s twisted. The obsession with likes and followers is poisonous to our mental states, I think. It will be interesting to see how that effects young people over time but it can’t be a good thing. This is unprecedented territory for our culture. My grandparents weren’t obsessing over their personal brands haha. (Thank goodness)
BigBen – My opinion on that whole mess is that (surprise) it ISNT an issue. You can’t fake legitimacy. We all know who is talented and who isn’t. The IG accounts that look super trashy but have high numbers are easy to see through. You can’t fake talent, and those who try are setting themselves for disappoint because when it comes time to really step-up, they find out really fast that they have nothing to offer.
Silva – Seems very dishonest. Social currency is definitely a great way for companies to reach people they wouldn’t normally, but buying fake followers throws that potential way off.
Is a social media following a mark of legitimacy or professional achievement anymore? Was it ever?
Haisch – I feel like it can be to a certain extent, but you’ve still gotta “play the game” a bit by posting your work. With a profession that has no *actual* way of accreditation, potential clients are always looking for ways to find trust in a photographer and a larger set of followers/likes still can do that to an extent. It’s not the only thing, but if I stumble across an account that has 50k followers and the posts are getting thousands of likes along with what look like legitimate comments, I’m more likely to look into more of their work. Call me shallow, but the idea that thousands of people find the content interesting still brings a bit more legitimacy at first glance.
Sasso – It’s a perceived one for sure. I think that success is defined differently based on your priorities. Maybe it is a certain number for some, others might find more success in being creatively fulfilled, shooting a certain number of whatever, etc. It’s pretty important to figure out what gets your heart pumping and to chase that.
Cowart – Ha, great question. I don’t think it’s a mark of either. Most people think it is, but it’s not. I mean, to some degree, it can reflect a certain level of success but can also reflect a big, silly game that people have manipulated to look more important than they are. Heck, even my own social media numbers are inflated. Because I’ve been featured over the years on various social media platforms, even I know that those numbers are not accurate. I’d say 1% or maybe up to 3% of my audience on any platform actually care and are listening. The rest is just smoke and mirrors that might look impressive but ultimately doesn’t mean much.
BigBen – Absolutely yes, a social media following (when grown organically) is a sign of professionalism. Here’s a measurable example: when it comes to reaching out to models or other people to shoot with, whether personally or commercially, there is a trust between people with large followings because we’ve watched each other’s lives for a long time. And we “hear the town gossip” in a sense.
Silva – It depends who you ask I guess. For me it was never a mark of professional achievement/legitimacy, just “popularity”. So I guess no, it never was. And now more than ever since buying followers is such a big thing, those numbers mean less.
So, that’s that then. A lot of shared words – like community, connection, business tool, comparison, curation, honesty, dishonesty, evolving, etc… Experiences may vary and it’s definitely changing in big ways and rapidly not just on the Instagram platform but in the photo industry overall. I’ll let you distill your own summary of the answers but overall I’d say real work, real effort, real relationships, and treating people well is what’s going to stand the test of time – playing the game might help you excel for a period of time but it will never replace your development as a person and as an artist.