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Instagram's Shift in Focus Is a Reminder of the Risk in Building Businesses on Someone Else's Land

With the news that Instagram's focus has shifted to be far less centered around images, many photographers who have spent years building their following and brand on the app are left out in the cold. This isn't the first, nor will it be the last time you are reminded of the dangers of building a large part of your business on someone else's platform.

Social media has been a revelation, of that there is no doubt. It has had a profoundly positive impact on the world in many regards, though its influence on modern society and its members is not wholly good. With that said, many businesses and industries have managed to harness the power of social media for their own ends, and photographers are undoubtedly one of them. Through the reach that social media platforms have afforded us, we have not only been able to develop wide and populated audiences, but we have also been able to find new clients and turn ourselves into a brand. It's not uncommon to hear people say that artists can get more eyes on their work than anyone in human history could have dreamed of previously, and while it's true, there are caveats. Firstly, very few of those eyes are meaningful, keen eyes, there for your work. Secondly, the platform on which they are viewing your work is rarely your own, and again, they're very rarely there for you.

This isn't to say that those eyes are not valuable or desirable, but it's important to remember that you aren't the main attraction. While that wouldn't matter if the platform was persistent and unchanging, it can become an issue when you have built a following for your work on a platform designed for it, then that platform changes or disappears.

Instagram Is No Longer a Photo Sharing Platform

When Instagram launched a decade ago, it would have been difficult to predict that it would evolve into anything that wasn't centered around photographs. At first, I wasn't particularly interested in the app — it seemed like a niche platform you could take photographs and put filters over the top of them, rather than something aimed at photographers — but, I was eventually lured into trying it. It was restrictive (square crop only) but enjoyable, and the algorithms that dictated your success and views were intuitive. I became a little obsessed with getting more followers and more likes, which can be seen as a negative reaction, but its impact on my desire to create more and better images was positive at least.

Over the last few years, however, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with the app, to the point where I no longer post to it. Where once I was getting clients and growing analytics, a change from the chronological feed, followed by myriad other prescriptive alterations to who sees what meant it became frustrating and demotivating. I more or less gave up on using Instagram altogether, but that's because I didn't get particularly "big" to begin with. Photographers with six-figure (or more) followings could still harness it to make money and get unimaginable exposure. So, what's the problem?

Instagram has openly stated that they are moving away from photo sharing and photography, with a stronger focus on the more contemporary desires of social media users. You can see the Head of Instagram's Tweet about this here.

At Instagram, we’re always trying to build new features that help you get the most out of your experience. Right now, we’re focused on four key areas: Creators, Video, Shopping, and Messaging.

— Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram

As our writer, Andy Day, said in his recent article about Instagram, this change isn't sudden to anyone who has been paying attention. While Instagram was one a purist app with enforced limitations that played an integral role in its identity, it has moved in many different directions since. The reasons for this are a debate for another article, though I'm sure other apps vying for Instagram's crown are key to it, as a lot of the changes mimic other platforms. Regardless of the why, this raises some issues and warnings for Instagram's users.

The Punishment for Loyalty

There are many users who subscribed to Instagram's original vision and built sizable portions of their photography businesses on the platform. There was a time — and not that long ago, might I add — where I would be discussing working with clients and they would have a minimum follower requirement on the brief or would require access to back-end analytics from your Instagram account. This was refined over time, and micro-influencers — that is, people who didn't have huge followings, but specialized, niche ones instead — were popular in different sectors.

To give a personal example, my commercial photography for watch brands, where I would do 100+ frame macro stacks and fashion shoots, was finding its way in front of other watch brands and watch collectors. A watch brand I was working with once offered me a discount code that would give me a commission for every sale I made for them. In a couple of months, I made so many sales that they had to cancel the code and took over a year to pay me. This was purely through Instagram. Then, there are the many clients I acquired through either talking to them on Instagram, them commenting on my images, or them reaching out to me in direct messages. Instagram was the lifeblood of that area of my business.

My story is only a small example, remember. There are photographers who have built large, successful businesses on Instagram, and they're now in a quandary. Either they pivot more to video, shorts, and whatever else Instagram forces upon its user base with its ever-changing algorithm, or they find a new home and start, more or less, from scratch.

The Warning and Summary

This may seem as if it's a tirade against Instagram — and I admit, I'm not their biggest fan anymore — but the warning is bigger than that. These social media platforms that many of us creatives work hard to build followings on and then aim to monetize to some degree have us building a farm on someone else's land, and that land can be taken back at any point. The history of this is unfortunately rich; we've had musicians who had most of their listeners on MySpace, Facebook pages that had their interaction rates drop by 95% overnight, Vine content creators left homeless once the app was closed, YouTubers who have been demonetized or had their accounts deleted after years on the platform — the list goes on. These platforms and apps may be fun for most of their users, but for creators, they can be their primary source of income.

Now, for clarity, I'm not suggesting you avoid using social media or the various content-sharing platforms, but rather that you diversify your presence as much as possible. It can be time-consuming and tiring, but it's a necessary evil for survival if your success hinges on your following. A connected piece of advice would be to drive traffic from these platforms to your own website as much as possible; that's land you own. Today, there are too many ways you can lose your following on a platform, through anything from the app closing to cancel culture, and you must safeguard against that. Right now, TikTok is one of the most powerful apps for marketing, and many people are putting a lot of time into creating behind-the-scenes footage of their shoots or educational shorts, but like all the apps that came before it, TikTok's supremacy will not last forever. By all means, harness the reach and power available to us with modern technology, but do so sensibly and avoid the calamity of losing that one basket with the majority of your eggs.

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21 Comments

Timothy Roper's picture

The best thing about Instagram is (or was) is that you can share and interact with other types of creatives, not just photographers. Sculptors, gaffers, painters, make-up artists--you name it, there's a huge spectrum of creatives. And I don't know of any other site that is or even was like that. So many of the other photo sites are just full of other photographers, which is VERY limiting and not very interesting. And while video's great, it's not the same thing at all. So I hope some kind of new creative site can takes its place, if Instagram fades in this regard.

Petr Klapper's picture

Inevitable spiral towards heap of fleeting garbage :)

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Is it just me, or folks are blowing this statement out of proportion, "Instagram Is No Longer a Photo Sharing Platform". The way I see it what they meant to say, "Instagram Is No Longer *JUST* a Photo Sharing Platform". Unless they totally take away the photo sharing aspect of it, what's the big deal?

Michael Scrip's picture

That's a good point.

Also... I just scrolled though my Instagram feed... and I only saw one video from a friend. The other 30+ posts were photos. There were other videos in there, but they were ads.

So for me... Instagram is still photo-heavy.

Alex Herbert's picture

Now take a step back and ask yourself... Would "Instagram is no longer just a photo sharing platform" be nearly as scandalous of a headline? Clicks come first!

Can U's picture

One of the points I have seen made is Instagram (for quite a while now) is no longer interested in improving photos part for the platform. They used to work on making it better for users. In many ways, they have made it worse in the past 6 years since they last did any major improvements (For example 1080 x 1080 pixels upgrade from its longtime size of 640 x 640).

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "In many ways, they have made it worse in the past 6 years..."

How so?

Can U's picture

One of the big ones was in the article. Chronological feed change.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

That's a non-issue because the feeds are static. Even though they are not technically in perfect chronological order, they are pretty close. Example posts in my feed: 2 hr, 1 hr, 1 hr, 3 hr, 2 hr, 3 hr, 4 h, 5 hr, etc. When I refresh the page, they stay in the same order. It's not like before...when they first made the change years ago, the feed were almost random: 8 hr, 1 hr, 10 hr, 5 hr 1 hr, 2 hr, 7 hr, etc. And, if I remember correctly, every time I refreshed the page later on, they'd be in a different order. That shit drove me nuts.

Can U's picture

Really? I just logged in and got 10 hrs, AD, 2 days, 10 hrs, AD, 1 day, 19 mins. AD.

And yes, it was really bad in the beginning. I had a job to shoot at a 3 day event and to post photos to their Instagram while the event was going on. Only to have photos for the event show up a week later in most of their followers feeds with plenty of comments of how they wish that had seen the photos while the event was actually going on.

Going through my feed more and I see many for 1-3 days ago. And I just went through my feed last night. Right up to the "You're all Caught up. You've seen all new post from the past 3 days". Which is bullshit, because I went through photos last night right until I was caught up. So me seeing new photos 1-3 days ago shows I wasn't caught up yesterday.

The point is. IMO, the change in chronological feed has made the app worse. It gives you no idea of when (Or even IF) anything you post will be seen). I personally don't like it. And I've had clients tell me they dislike it.

I mean, if it works for you or your clients I guess that's ok. But it's not my experience.

But again. My original point was. If Facebook isn't doing anything to improve the photo sharing aspect and growing that part of the app. And instead putting all their resources to other things. Why should anyone use it?

It's like Amazon photos. I get it free with my prime. But I never use it, since they haven't added anything of value or improved anything since they introduced it many years ago.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Even if Facebook doesn't improve IG photo wise, where else can one go? Anyone threatening to leave is basically just posturing. More likely, they ain't gonna leave.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think it's important for ME to determine how I use Instagram, instead of letting Instagram tell me how they want me to use their platform. I will continue to use Instagram as a photo sharing app, whether they want me to or not.

Andy Day's picture

Good points well made.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Look.... Instigram is where the people are plain and simple. They're not on Flickr or the other photo sharing sites. So until there's an actual successor or alternative to get such exposure let me know

Another Username's picture

Try to create work that bring the people to it. That is what Mark Z. did. That is also what the Beatles did. And Annie Lebowitz. And Nirvana. And Johnny Cash. And Scorsese. And Spielberg.

Like Henry Ford said “if we asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

“If you build it, they will come….”

Go look that one up!

Now if your goal is to get more followers then yeah go where the people are.

The goal of the people listed above was clearly not get to get followers. It was to make great art and through that ….followers came.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I can’t remember how many articles I saw here and elsewhere encouraging people to dedicate hundreds and even thousands upon thousands of hours of time to building a following on Instagram.
Imagine if instead, none of those articles were published and instead, articles were published saying don’t focus on social media fads but do focus on other aspects of self-improvement that will yield skills which will be important forever, not just for a short time.
To be fair, those articles were also published here and elsewhere, but they were drowned out by the repetitive tidal waves of articles advocating for Instagram.
The article above appears to advocate for not tying your success to another business and their whims. It’s ironic that taking (trendy) advice from this site is largely a similar situation - this site survives off of advertising and to thrive, the owners of this site need you to come back over and over again so they are incentivized to push trendy/debatable advice (aka: clickbait) so that more ads will load.

Chris Rogers's picture

Never put all your eggs in one basket.

Steve White's picture

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1998, he had seen how Apple had frittered (best word I can use on a family forum) a few billion dollars on joint projects (Taligent, Pink, etc.) with other companies that all had failed. His analysis of the reasons for failure was that the partners had different goals than Apple, so that when the partners clashed (and they did), nothing got done.

He was determined to stop that, and demanded that hence-forth that Apple would own all the things that was most important to it. He might work with another company, or buy that company, or license something, but the more important it was to Apple's survival, the more Apple was going to control it. We've all seen the result of that.

Hence photographers and social media. You don't own social media, social media owns you. Instagram can changes its rules and oops! You're out of luck.

The more important social exposure is to your income stream, the more you have to own the means of that exposure. You can certainly have some presence on social media, but all of that should be directing people to the platform that you own (e.g., a web page). It's yours and can't be taken away. That's going to be much harder, since Instagram, FB, etc., all make it very easy to post-and-go, but there's no substitute for the hard work to protect yourself.

Remember the old adage: if it's free, you aren't the customer, you're the product.

Daniel Lee's picture

Social media should never be your main site, it should really just be used to direct people to your website.

David Moore's picture

Years ago, can't remember who it was, saw a photographer talk about how the trick was to get people off of your social media profile and to your website. Made sense, but also seems impossible these days. People go to their apps, interact in the apps, then never go toy our site or whatever.

Another Username's picture

One of the reasons I stopped playing in a band at bars is because bars were not interested in good music. They wanted people to pack the bar and drink. Well, that is a promoter not a musician! I started to wonder, if I just brought 300 people and not all my equipment, could I just sit at the bar and get paid and not actually play?? And believe it or not if you did this you would probably get booked more then a really good musician who just you know, plays music and writes really good songs!

I have always seen Instagram and all social as the same. As you said, building a business on someone else’s land.

I could not agree more with these very well made points. I have never used Instagram or really any social media to grow my business. Granted I’m not taking $100,000 jobs but I doubled my business last year during Covid and all without social media. Just word of mouth and a good portfolio. Honestly, I would not work with a client that even asked what my follower count was. If they ask that question, they are not interested in your art. They are interested in your follower count! Also I don’t have one because I don’t have an Instagram account!

Just like the bars that demand you only play cover songs and ask how many people can you bring to the venue. They don’t care about your art. They care about getting more people in the door. Social media has never cared about the art. And neither have MOST of the people that have “liked” your content. MOST people “like” other content simply to boost their social standing, there are entire strategy articles around it designed by Gary V himself!