After a summer of relative regularity, my posting activity became a little sparse. One reason for this is that, towards the end of July, I dipped my toe for the first time in to the inviting waters of Instagram. I had been wary for years, having heard tales of stolen intellectual property and copyright ownership by ‘the Man’ but, after a conversation with a friend who is a regular user, was persuaded to give the platform a go, primarily as a means of increasing traffic to this site. I would like to say that I was successful but statistics do not lie. WordPress records advise that in the last five months there has been a grand total of one referral to my blog from Instagram.
So has the whole thing been a pointless exercise? No. No journey is ever wasted and, because I set off with a purpose my travels in Instagram Land have been with my eyes open bringing me a healthy dose of reality. Once I had accepted that this was not to be the route to more readers my first task was to get to know the inhabitants of my new world. From my initial encounters I have identified three main tribes:-
- Those selling
- Those buying
- Those wanting to sell
The buyers are the smallest group of the three. Often their accounts are private, followers are restricted to friends and family. They post pictures of their pets, their children, their dinners and their holiday snaps. They ‘like’ similar posts by their friends and family but also images from strangers that appeal to them. Occasionally that image is one of mine and I am grateful for it.
My encounters with the sellers have also been generally positive, largely because they have involved choice and action on my behalf. Successful sellers do not need to approach you. They lay out their wares, whether they are actual things you can buy for money, or more intangible, a lifestyle, an art form, which you can support, validate, approve of with the craved for, powerful, ‘like’. I went to Instagram to sell but have often found myself in the role of buyer. There are some truly talented and interesting people in the world and I continue to be amazed by the electronics that allow me to admire the drawings of an artist in Mexico, to laugh at the hilarious anecdotes of an antiques collector in the US, to follow along on the travels of a Geneva based UN employee working to combat the use of torture, to marvel at the drone photography skills of a Finnish teenager, all from a 3 x 5 inch screen in my hand.
The tribe of would be sellers is the most troubling. There is real money to be made as a social media influencer. Unsurprisingly it now ranks amongst the dream jobs sought after by the next generation, usurping the old staples of sporting and music star. Often a would be seller holds themselves our as a buyer. This is part of the like for like, follow for follow culture that is rife in Instagram Land. Sometimes the approach is subtle; a ‘like’ on more than one photo, perhaps even a comment (often using the words ‘my dear’ which I suspect is an attempt at friendliness by those for whom English is not a first language but to me appears strange and unsettling, conjuring images of the wolf in grandma’s bed). The comment will likely praise the image or gallery and ask for a visit to the ‘buyer’s’ site to give them feedback, a request for attention disguised as a complement. Other approaches are brazen; an unexpected follow from a random account, sometimes connected to a recent post of yours but sometimes wildly off key. By example a few months ago I posted a photo taken at the Viking ship museum in Roskilde, Denmark and used the hashtag ‘viking’. Within minutes I was being followed by the official account of the Minnesota Vikings American football team. In this environment ‘likes’ and follows become commodities with monetary value. It is possible to buy both. This explains the accounts with one or two pictures and thousands of followers.
Now that I know it a little better will I continue my adventures in Instagram Land? Would I recommend it to a fellow traveller? There is certainly something appealingly (or should that be appallingly) easy about it. Select your chosen image, add a filter if you wish, a few words, a few hashtags and boom – it’s out there in the world. No hours of careful crafting, no redrafting. It is, as the name suggests, instant and, I must grudgingly admit, gratifying. Back to those statistics. On average my Instagram posts generate 15 to 20 ‘likes’, roughly double my average for WordPress. Yesterday one particular image reached the dizzying heights of 58 and is still climbing. I appreciate that this is very small fry when the top ‘grammers generate views in the thousands but to me, it is unprecedented popularity. And yes, it is addictive. We all crave acceptance and there is nothing more perfectly designed to generate inner smiles of smugness than the approval of a stranger for something we have created. It makes us feel important, it masks, for a fleeting second, our insignificance, it calms our fear of mortality. It is massively distorting and unhealthy but, like all other things that are bad for us, we keep reaching for it because it is also oh so good.
The lesson here, if there is one at all, is that we must be varied in our travel. A week’s beach trip to Instagram Land should be alternated with a cultural exchange to WordPress World, a place where it is much more difficult to buy approval and where more meaningful, long term, relationships can be formed, something that will last beyond the holiday romance. My new year’s resolution is to remember this and to write more often and maybe I’ll see you on my travels in the virtual country of your choice.