I only got on Instagram when my girlfriend got a new smart phone and I inherited her old one. If you don’t have a smart phone, you can’t use Instagram (there are workarounds, but it’s not for the PC). And after a year or so using the app, I find that it encourages a self-defeating process in which people deliberately bury their own content, and everyone else’s, in a sea of follows.

Click to go to my Instagram account. But don’t follow my ass if you just want me to follow you back and we won’t even look at each other’s work.

I use Instagram mainly for participating in sharing art with other artists and seeing what they are producing. In that sense it’s been pretty good, as I’ve discovered a lot of artists new to me. But there’s a looming problem that threatens its utility.

When I got my account I climbed to over 300 followers relatively quickly, then plateaued. I get new followers most every day, often several times a day, nevertheless my follower count will barely move, or go down. The reason is that people unfollow me if I don’t follow them back. In terms of numbers, my growth is like taking several steps forward and then several steps back, with an occasional slight inclination forward.

I could have far more followers if I simply followed back anyone who follows me. It’s all you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours except nobody’s back actually gets scratched. The reason I don’t follow them back is they aren’t making art that interests me enough to be a part of a group of people I can manage to keep up with. There’s no reason to follow someone if I’m not going to bother to ever look at what they do, or their content is going to be buried among thousands of other people.

The hope people have is that I WILL look at what they do because I follow them, but they won’t look at what I do because, among other things, their feed is unmanageably large. It’s not really a give and take. It’s a pretend to give and hope to take. If I follow someone it is only because I am interested in what they have to share, and I will try to keep up with them. If they don’t follow me back, I don’t care. To me it’s like buying someone’s CD because I like the music. I don’t demand that they buy my art or else I won’t listen to their music.

If I follow too many people I will end up just tapping through my feed, automatically liking everything, and not giving anything more than a few second’s notice. What is the point of doing that? I can only really follow a few hundred people, tops, and that’s if they don’t post several times a day. How many images can I process in a sitting ? Maybe 50-60 before I just start swiping automatically.

When someone new follows me on Instragram, I see a follow button next to their name and avatar so that I can follow them without even bothering to look at any of their content. I’m expected to do that, in which case I won’t be able to follow anyone I’m interested in because I will have to rummage through hundreds or thousands of images a day in order to find what I’m interested in. My feed would be flooded by selfies of people I never met.

In the end Instragram encourages a highly diluted interaction with visual material, sacrificing visual intelligence and the savoring of visual imagery for ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME numbers and mad clicking or swiping.

The app can still be used with some utility if people don’t get caught up in playing the numbers game, but those who limit themselves to following a few hundred people (which is not easy to do with any real attention) will get dramatically less views and likes, sacrificing their automatic reciprocal likes, in which case their posts will not appear in recommended searches that showcase the most popular content. You will never get off the ground if you don’t have the big numbers.

A possible solution would be to bury the numbers instead of people’s art. Instead of putting my stats right next to my avatar, there could be a button we’d need to click to see someone’s stats. Then people would look at content more than meaningless numbers. But I gather the more mindless swipes, taps, and clicks happen, the better it is for the business. The business model encourages pretending to engage rather than really engaging, and the end result is that only the already famous or cynically manipulative and self-serving will be visible to more than a small circle of people.

Further, when people like anything I post, I have no idea if they actually like it or even bothered to look at it. There’s one person who I suspect hires someone or uses a bot to automatically like everything by everyone she follows.

Am I missing something?

~ Ends

2 replies on “The Strange Self-Defeating Psychology of Instagram

  1. I don’t use Instagram but you make a good argument. I do use youtube and there are a lot of people on youtube encouraging smaller channels to build their subscriber base by doing sub for sub. In other words, i you sub me, I will sub you. That will increase the number of subscriptions you have, but it doesn’t really help you because those people aren’t going to watch your content. It’s just chasing numbers for the sake of numbers. Not a winning strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

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