I joined Instagram almost a year ago.
In that time I’ve gained somewhere around 2500 followers, and lost more than three quarters of them. This for a number of reasons. But the foremost is that most Instagram advice on the internet is beamed from a parallel dimension, where it works.
The Instagram advice I refer to sounds great: practical strategies to grow your following. Some are purely mechanical; some are get-your-hands-dirty. But while they make great clickbait, they’re nearly universally flawed.
The Internet isn’t tilted in my favor; that’s business, that’s life. From my perspective, we’ve seen this swindle before. This is the social media equivalent of people with great genes, telling us if we eat better, exercise more, and study their particular Zen, we’ll look just as fit and attractive as they do.
Why does this matter?
As a working photographer, I’ll take any free advertising opportunity—especially something so intimate as appearing on a stranger’s phone. So will the other 100,000,000 people posting daily. Here’s one place I agree with the Instagram advice-pedlers: It’s not enough to be exceptional at your craft.
Instagram is a popularity contest. Here success privileges success; if you’re in the top nine for any given hashtag, you’ll pretty likely be seen. Those nine are auto-curated, and logarithmically more viewed (and thus liked, and thus keep that privileged spot). Now, imagine the audience of a hashtag with whom you share 20,000,000 competitors. That’s prospective clients, from high-dollar weddings to worldwide brands.
Booking work is the difference between rent and debt, so regularly scoring one of those nine spots is important. More visibility means more followers. More followers means more social influence. More influence is very attractive to prospective clients.
But followers don’t necessarily correlate with likes. (Just as likes don’t correlate with work.) People follow you for a lot of reasons—it seems to see more of your work is low on the list.
Playing the numbers
I’m ashamed to tell you I did this:
- Go to a similar account, or a hashtag relevant to your work.
- Follow their followers, or everyone using a hashtag. Up to 60 per hour.
- Those that don’t follow back within a day or so, unfollow.
My first few months on Instagram, I felt more confused and angry than inspired. Strangers followed me. I’d follow them back. An hour, a day later, they’d unfollow me. I learned this, eventually, by connecting another app to my account, to track everything. Sometimes I’d be followed by the same account three times in a week. Still, I look at folks who followed me today, and think, “Why do you think I’ll be a fan of yours?” Then I look at their account: following 4,700 people. They’re not even aware they followed me in the first place. Even if they were, they’d never see my pictures in their feed. They’d never interact with me. They’d be dead weight.
So when I learned that’s what folks were doing, I felt vindictive. I felt, somehow, that I’d paid for something with my indignity. Of course I hadn’t, and I was quickly repaid with karma’s mighty fist in the groin.
I gained followers. I gained several hundred, in a few months. And that same app that told me who was unfollowing me told me something equally awful: that 99% of the people I’d followed this way have to this day never liked a single photo of mine. Yet they haven’t unfollowed me. At first blush, I sure look popular.
I devalued hundreds of people in the same way I was devalued. Which brings me to the second category of nonsense Instagram advice:
Do these things and you will succeed
- Be yourself
- Tell stories in the comments
- Comment back with substance; like and comment with substance
- Develop your own visual style
- Use medium-popular and local-targeted hashtags, like #albuquerquephotographer
- Likewise, avoid stupid, non-descriptive ones, like #lunch or #love
- Stay consistent: post at the same time(s) daily; maintain a color scheme; post thematically
- Keep your bio short and sweet
- Balance formality with light-heartedness
- Blah blah… blah blah… blah blah…
In other words, develop and stick by a brand. Well, I’ve done all that, nearly from Day 1. Over the last year, I’ve tried all of this. It hasn’t worked.
Here’s my ugly-but-true Instagram advice
With nearly 1000 followers, and 30 hashtags per image (Instagram’s limit), I struggle to hit 70 likes on most posts. I’ve cleared 100 likes per image less than a dozen times in 600+. Sometimes I see my photographs on someone else’s feed (permission rarely requested), with 5x or 10x the response. Sometimes from accounts with half the followers.
It’s not enough to be good, kind, sincere, bold, and fiercely committed to your craft. You have to be charming.
These advisers are successful, which may be the problem
I think a lot of success in social media is intangible. Yes, there are some beautifully technical accounts. Some people make themes work very well for them. I think nearly every successful “lifestyle” photographer out there creates deeply classist fantasies for their viewers. Sometimes literally. And some of these folks are just generally high-quality, but I can’t see why they’re supposed to be special.
I think most of these people succeed because of their Social Media Charisma. They’ve stumbled on or co-created the zeitgeist. And from inside the Cool Kids Dome, everything’s tinged with Cool Kid Logic.
Many excellent photographers show their work on Instagram. They’ve earned their followings through years, even decades, of hard work. But they don’t tend to be ones shilling Instagram advice to the desperate and confused. They spend their time shooting, editing, and scratching their heads that the whole thing is finally turning in their favor.