When Did Instagram Become Joyless?

When Did Instagram Become Joyless?

I remember my first post to Instagram. As an Android user, I had to wait until April 3, 2012 before I could get the app, but when I did, I excitedly uploaded my first photo, the Nashville skyline with the seemingly appropriate Nashville filter. I was hooked.

Over the next several years, the platform pushed me to develop my skills with smartphone photography, a challenge when you’re used to full-frame DSLRs and lenses with red rings around the front. The “Insta” part of the name gently pushed users to post photos as they took them, as the events unfolded live. Live video wasn’t really a thing, not just because of bandwidth, but because with the assumption of photos being posted as they are taken, the “live” feeling was baked in.

There was a simplicity to the whole endeavor. All photos had to be square and photos were all you could post. Your timeline showed your friends’ photos in chronological order, no algorithms necessary.

Six days later, Facebook bought Instagram. Slowly, things changed. More photographers posted previously taken images, or ones that had been carefully processed on a computer and taken with a bigger camera. Debates went on about whether this practice was diluting the purity of Instagram’s focus or should be labeled in hashtags. Influencers crowded the airwaves, jockeying for eyeballs, buying followers, and generally making Instagram a poorer platform for it.

Then the service added video, and vertical photos, and galleries and IGTV, and livestreaming and, well, you get the idea. The purity of a service just to feature great photography was lost (and along the way we got saddled with vertical video).

Instagram Is Facebook’s Backup Plan for Younger Audiences

I work with high school students for photography workshops, and a cheesy line I always use when doing portraits is “Here’s your next Facebook profile photo!” That’s when they inform me that none of them are on Facebook, since it’s where their Grandma hangs out, but that they’ll be happy for the new Instagram photo.

I also learned that many young people maintain two instagram accounts, a "real" one that's usually private, and a "Finsta" or Fake Instagram, which is usually public. I'm not sure if Facebook intended for people to use it that way, but it's what young people are doing.

In the absence of young people using its main Facebook site, It seems that the company is larding up Instagram with junk just to keep its younger audience hooked into its social platforms. Keep posting to boost your views with the algorithm, post live content to build a following, all in the name of increasingly shallow engagement. While that’s wise thinking from a business perspective on their part, the ridiculous influencer culture, broken algorithm, and confusing feature set have all destroyed a clean, wonderful service that was once actually about photography. Instead of pushing photographers to use their phones to the fullest and post in the moment, every user is trying to one-up one another with heavily edited photos taken with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras definitely not in the moment. At the same time, while some new services such as Dayflash have come along, none have the critical mass that Instagram does. Purists are kind of stuck.

So Where Does That Leave the Purists?

Years ago, when teaching social media lessons to adults and young students alike, I often praised Instagram as Facebook, but with everything stripped out but the photos. These days, that description doesn't really hold true, as all of these extra features have turned Instagram into Facebook's not-so-little brother.

Remember Blogger? Back in the late 2000s it seemed like everyone had a personal blog of some sort. While people now chase likes and views all over their Instagram pages, I've switched to viewing it almost like a personal blog.

Remember Blogger? Back in the late 2000s it seemed like everyone had a personal blog of some sort. While people now chase likes and views all over their Instagram pages, I've switched to viewing it almost like a personal blog.

So there's two ways to look at the changes: Embrace them, maybe ride the influencer wave to short-term fame and maybe some money from a company that's easily duped by a large following, or use it in your own way. I do the latter, viewing Instagram as more of my own visual diary of what I've done and how my kids are growing. It's easy for friends and family to share our lives, and it's quick to pull up in conversation when referencing a photo or moment. It's the way people viewed Blogger and Livejournal when those services first appeared on the scene.

I arrived at this determination after trying to get verified by Instagram as an Fstoppers writer; I was either not popular enough or didn't have enough of a following to matter, even though PicGuide is me and I'm clearly PicGuide. About then is when I learned to stop chasing the likes and followers and learned to embrace the 'Gram for what it is: A temporary space to store my photos for my own and my friends' enjoyment that will eventually go away like all the Xangas and Flickrs before it. (I'll save the discussion for Flickr's life-or-death status for another day). All of these services will be gone one day or another, and there's no point in worrying about accumulating all the eyeballs when they'll migrate somewhere else in a few years. Keeping it in perspective this way will prevent Instagram from becoming a joyless experience.

What do you think of Instagram’s metamorphosis over the years? Has it been good or bad for photography?

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25 Comments

For me it had lost main part - "insta". I don't want to see carefully selected by robots posts that may be interesting for me. I'm interested in what happens now.

It became joyless when its entire being was predicated on the number of likes and followers instead of simply sharing great photography. If IG hid that data (even if they held it internally), I would like it a lot more.

Andrew Morse's picture

I agree with you, and while they are testing hiding likes here in Canada and Australia, I'm betting it will get worse and not better.

I suspect that they're not going to get rid of those metrics entirely, just make them less influential. I would bet Instagram thinks too many companies are making money from their platform without them getting a cut. I am betting that Instagram transitions to a "pay for exposure" model to capitalize on the marketing power of "influencers". They've already created a third type of account, so now you can be a normal user, a business, or a creator. The segregation and categorization of accounts seems like the start of a strategy to give instagram more control to monetize all exposure. Then again, maybe I need to take off my tinfoil hat!

C Fisher's picture

No, you're right. It's all about the Benjamin's baby. They saw how much influencers were making without them getting their greasy hands on a cut and got jealous.

I'm in Canada with the hidden likes. They just blanked out the number so it makes the page look wonky, a huge space beside the word likes lmao.

Everyone seems sick of IG, flooded with narcissists posting selfies and where 1/3 of everything you see in the feed or stories are paid advertisements! Luckily there are alternatives such as 500px.com, flickr.com, pixegram.com, tumblr.com, and even fstoppers.com if they were to create an app for their community section.

Alex Herbert's picture

I used to use 500px more, but it seems to lean heavily towards a certain aesthetic in terms of photography. I find myself liking it less and less over time.

Derek Johnson's picture

You're forgetting about Behance - I find tons of inspirational work on there.

My issue with IG is that everyone recreates the same image from the same locations. Geotagging has literally caused mayhem. The community aspect is great, but other than that I've been uninspired from the platform in the last 18 months.

Jim Bolen's picture

I stay where potential clients may be hanging out. IG is one of those for me, and sadly, FB. I doubt I would find any clients on 500px.

David T's picture

I love it. Allows me to discover and connect with tons of creatives.

Adam Lee's picture

Algorithm feed ruined everything. Just like the early days of Facebook I would scroll my feed every day until I reached whatever post I had seen before so I could keep up with everything. Now the same crap keeps getting bumped up to the top repeatedly and only a couple dozen of the hundreds I follow even show up. I basically stopped looking the Instagram feed all together ever since.

JetCity Ninja's picture

yerp. some of us have memories longer than a gnat's and can remember the last image seen and who are more chronologically inclined.

because of it, i no longer post comments, likes or scroll through the feed as the lack of order irks the crap out of me. twitter is trying the same BS, which is even more problematic since most people use it to inform them of news and time sensitive events (natural disasters, emergency alerts, etc). i simply wish there were a setting that allowed chronological viewing.

until then, i will treat it as a one way street.

So ... phone photographers are the purists? And Instagram should be pushing photographers to use their phones to the fullest? I disagree with all of that.

By the way, you don't have to follow everyone on the planet. Just follow the people you actually like. That way you don't have to complain about the ones that you don't like. For example, if you don't like influencers, don't follow influencers. Seems obvious ... no?

Rob Mitchell's picture

Once you get past the fact that it's nothing 'Insta' anymore and just get on with stuffing stuff online because you want to, not to get likes or followers, its fun. Skip all the selfie brigade and as soon as someone starts doing the giveaways and endorsements, bin them. They're not being themselves anymore.
Lighten up, it is what it is, a big brag fest of 'look at me'

Oh, and remember, if you're into yoga. It's not really yoga unless you're posting pics of yourself doing it.

I shoot instagram campaigns for clients, targeted stuff that boosts product sales. It can work too because no matter how shite we sometimes think social media is. Images sell.

user-248633's picture

When it was overrun by narcissists and "influencers".

JetCity Ninja's picture

welcome to the internet. i dont think we've met before.

Daniel Lee's picture

I still prefer Flickr or 500px and never really got into IG. I have an account and do post from time to time, but I am very tempted to delete it. Anything owned by Facebook isn't worth using.

Marcus Joyce's picture

Joyless when the algorithm kicked in. Chronological was dead. Bots, auto commenters, etc

I still choose to post on FB groups instead of Instagram....I guess I'm a grandma.....

It became joyless when people started referring to an app that is less than 10 years old as "pure" in some way. Technology changes and we adapt with it. It's an accelerated version of people referring to film photography that isn't "photoshopped" as pure and digital as being joyless.
Instagram is what it is now because no one wants to see crappy phone photos of your mediocre lunch at some random local cafe. Like all entertainment people want to escape into a world that is more exciting than their own and they don't care if they know it's fake.

JetCity Ninja's picture

when facebook took over and changed the feed to algorithmic. i prefer to see stuff in chronological order... there's nothing more annoying than realizing i've commented on a weeks old photo, knowing that comment will never be seen or replied to.

Studio 403's picture

I give IG 2 more years and its gone or morphed into another beast. All these apps have to generate ad dollars to work. So I just post stuff for fun, It is not a public platform, It’s a platform owned by facebook. To say its public is a scam.

JetCity Ninja's picture

IIRC Facebook is going to update all references to Instagram as "Instagram by Facebook" in the very near future. it'll be soon before it's just "Facebook Photos."

David Moore's picture

When it went from "here is another way to share photos" to "this is the main way people look at your photos".

Drew Pluta's picture

Yet another post bending over backwards to try and love Instagram. Here's a hint as to why you're whining now.
It has always been garbage and you were too thick and common to notice. It was built on a simplistic model, then bought by a conspiratorial front corporation, then reinvented as a tool for overlords. The entire project was polluted from it's earliest days. People like me have been warning against this all from day one. The tiniest bit of tech wisdom can call this from a mile away or years ahead.

Now what? Does anybody actually want the community they claim to seek? If you want nice things you can't support the trash culture.