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Instagram's Evolution: From a Photographer's Paradise to a Social Media Powerhouse
In its early days, Instagram was lauded as a haven for the artistically inclined. The platform offered a unique digital space where professional or otherwise photographers could exhibit their creativity and engage in dialogues about the craft. However, the platform has dramatically changed since its acquisition by Facebook (now Meta) (Manovich, 2016).
The initial sign of change surfaced when Instagram shifted from a chronological feed to an algorithmic one, a move that stirred considerable debate within the artistic community (Tufekci, 2015). Previously, the user's feed featured the most recent posts at the top. After the switch, posts were ranked based on predicted interests derived from a user's interaction history. Although the aim was to present users with content tailored to their preferences, the alteration raised questions about the discoverability of new content, particularly for photographers and visual artists. Discoverability is crucial for these creatives, as their growth and engagement depend significantly on their work's visibility (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010).
The algorithmic shift wasn't the only significant transformation Instagram underwent. The platform started aligning itself with the trend of commercialization, typical of other social media platforms. As these platforms sought to monetize their extensive user base, the focus shifted from providing a space for creativity and self-expression to optimizing user engagement and ad revenue. Consequently, the Instagram feed started to brim with advertisements and sponsored posts. This new commercial focus challenged the creative community, pushing photographers and visual artists into competition with commercial posts for visibility and engagement (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010).
The transformation of Instagram extended beyond algorithmic and commercial shifts. The platform began prioritizing video content in various formats: stories, reels, IGTV, etc., over traditional still images (Marwick, 2015)—the introduction of these new formats brought a host of storytelling opportunities. However, it also meant adjusting to a steep learning curve for photographers steeped in still imagery. Now, the platform that once thrived on still images caters to short-form video content, leaving photographers grappling with the choice of adapting or risking falling behind.
Instagram's design also underwent changes that promoted fleeting interactions over in-depth discussions, disrupting the dynamics of the creative community on the platform (Kietzmann et al., 2011). The user interface encourages short, quick interactions such as likes, comments, and shares, which are beneficial but don't substitute for more profound, more meaningful dialogues. This reduction in meaningful interactions deprives the artistic community of crucial feedback on their work and lessens opportunities for substantive engagement.
Another aspect of Instagram that has garnered criticism from its users is the community guidelines, especially those about nudity (Senft & Baym, 2015). Intended to safeguard the community, these guidelines have been accused of inhibiting artistic freedom and propagating a narrow, conservative view of acceptable content. Artists exploring themes of body positivity, sexuality, or nudity often encounter these guidelines as roadblocks, impacting their ability to share their work freely.
However, despite the challenges faced by photographers and artists on Instagram, emerging alternatives offer hope. Platforms such as Vero and Ello have positioned themselves as counterpoints to Instagram. These platforms promise a more creator-friendly experience with fewer algorithmic restrictions, tolerant content policies, and a design that values the artist over the advertiser.
Instagram's evolution serves as a reflection of more significant shifts in the digital content landscape. The changes in the platform, from its algorithmic restructuring to its commercial focus and content guidelines, have far-reaching implications for photographers and visual artists. Yet, the emergence of alternative media like Vero and Ello signals the potential for digital spaces that can strike a balance between commercial viability and nurturing a creative community. Only time will tell if these platforms will be successful in this endeavor, offering a beacon of hope for artists seeking a digital space that resonates with their creative ambitions.
Frier, S. (2020). No filter: The inside story of Instagram. Simon and Schuster.
Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59-68.
Kietzmann, J. H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I. P., & Silvestre, B. S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons, 54(3), 241-251.
Manovich, L. (2016). Instagram and contemporary image. Manovich.net. Retrieved from http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/instagram-and-contemporary-image
Marwick, A. E. (2015). Instafame: Luxury selfies in the attention economy. Public Culture, 27(1 (75)), 137-160.
Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 1588-1606.
Tufekci, Z. (2015). Algorithmic harms beyond Facebook and Google: Emergent challenges of computational agency. Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law, 13, 203.