For some time now, Instagram and I have had an ambivalent relationship. In short, I feel like I’m on the Instagram hamster wheel.

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Before I get into my relationship with Instagram, I have to say one thing up front. This post reflects my personal experience. Other photographers may have the hang of Instagram and be successful on this platform. I haven’t been able to achieve that.

For some time now, Instagram and I have had an ambivalent relationship. I had long since come to terms with the fact that my effectiveness on Instagram is very limited and will probably remain so.

Because on the one hand there are my three Instagram accounts, which I feed almost daily with a picture. After all, I have to feed the feed. And on the other hand, there is the constantly modest number of followers. A few of them regularly look at my new photos and like them. Rather seldom a comment gets lost there. Bad and unattractive photos on my part could be the reason for this increase and standstill. But to see this as the only reason is not enough and would distract from the real problem.

The Followers

Let’s get back to followers. Among my followers, I think I have identified three different groups:

  • By far the largest group is made up of people with the attitude “If you like me, I’ll like you.” This share shrank a little over a year ago when I started unfollowing accounts with mundane photos on a large scale to really only see photographers in my feed who inspire me and whose work I have the utmost respect for. The reaction immediately followed, “unfollow me and I’ll unfollow you.”.
  • The second group are followers who are not stingy with comments when they really like a photo. I’m far from constantly posting extraordinary photos. But every now and then I manage to post a photo with a certain something that immediately catches the eye of these followers, too. That makes me feel like I’m on the same wavelength.
  • And by far the smallest group are the followers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person in the real world thanks to Instagram. It’s a pleasure to meet them in real life and talk about photos and the world.

So Instagram has helped me find inspiration for my photography and, more importantly, make new acquaintances with extremely interesting people.

The Hamster Wheel

Nevertheless, my discomfort continued to grow to the point where I felt like I was in a hamster wheel, which many before me have described very aptly and in detail. Many influencers and advisors express the credo: “If you post regularly and consistently in terms of topic and style, participate with likes and comments daily, then your success (many followers, requests for orders) is not far.” This formula seemed to me more and more too simplistic and, moreover, it did not take into account Instagram’s strategy or business model. Now Eric Kim is anything but my role model, but you have to give him credit for recognizing trends amazingly early or at least being able to reflect them well from other sources. For example, he already said three years ago that he would stop posting photos on Instagram, although I have not now checked whether this is actually true. His most important statements at the time:

You end up taking photos to “optimize” your likes and followers instead of innovating your photo art.

Let’s say you have a particular photo that you really like, but it’s “weird” and unusual. You probably won’t share the photo because you’re afraid it won’t get many likes.

You become a prisoner of your own success: for example, you don’t experiment with color photography because you know your followers already love your black and white images, and you’re afraid of losing or angering followers with something new.

Consumer User Experience

As a computer scientist and UI designer, it has been drilled into my head that companies can only be successful if they focus their products and services entirely on their customers. In terms of Instagram, this would actually mean that Instagram does everything it can to treat me like a customer, both in the role of producer (photographer) and in the role of consumer (viewer of photos). After all, I’m paying with my pictures, my data and my time.

But this attitude has long since disappeared from Instagram and other social media platforms, or probably never existed in the first place. Because the customer is not us. The customers are those who pay for advertising. And the cash registers ring especially when these social media giants keep us mere mortals on their platforms as long as possible in order to sell as much advertising as possible. So we’re really just necessary resources for them to run their business.

So it’s not surprising that from Instagram’s point of view, a good consumer is just a passively consuming user who scrolls through feeds and suggestions for as long as possible. Actually, Instagram treats us like a toddler who needs to be fed: “Look what I have for you today! All you have to do is open the app and then do nothing but scroll down the feed and swallow the morsels I’m putting in front of your mouth.”

Producer User Experience

Because of its market power, Instagram doesn’t have to worry about those who provide content every day, which is then placed between the ads. If you want to be seen in this flood, you have to constantly post Instagram-compatible photos, i.e. photos that look good on a small screen and are expected by your followers. The functionality to post pictures on Instagram seems archaic, to say the least.

User Experience in general

The user interface looks like a prototype center to me. It’s cribbed from other platforms, like Snapchat and TikTok, and new things are seemingly cobbled together completely incoherently. Actually, the Instagram app is a prime example of how a user interface and user experience should not be. But a smooth, targeted, and efficient experience would contradict the intention to keep us on the platform for as long as possible.

For example, if I want to see what’s new posted by the people I follow, I have to dig through recommendations and paid posts. Sometimes days and weeks go by before I see the latest photos of my colleagues.

Also a specific search for interesting and inspiring photos for me – in my case street photography – is conceivably difficult or impossible. I usually find new photographers worthy of attention only because I see what my colleagues like and comment on.

The trigger that led me to act

A few days ago, I happened to come across a post by Lighttraveler that got me thinking. He deletes from one day to the other his two Instagram accounts (with much more followers than me) and is happy and relieved about it.

What if I do this too? I lacked the courage to go that far.

Nevertheless, on impulse, I deleted all the photos from my three Instagram accounts @ivan.rigamonti, and @italian.dressing, which now leaves my three feeds pretty much naked.

Why do I even have three accounts many may ask. Isn’t one account enough? Well, I was told to be consistent in content and style. So I needed one account for street photography in black and white, one for street photography in color, and one for everything that didn’t fit into the first two.

This spontaneous action also helped me prove my thesis that Instagram purposefully educates users to become passive and patronized consumers. If my thesis were true, then most followers wouldn’t even notice that I no longer have any photos there. Because passive consumers simply go to their feed and consume what is put in front of them. And they don’t notice that there are no more photos of me in there.

A follower would only notice my naked Konti when he becomes active and specifically visits my profile. My wife was the first to notice after two days that I no longer have any photos on it. But she is not a typical Instagram user. She doesn’t follow anyone except her immediate family, and she regularly goes to see what her loved ones have posted. It took another four days for a colleague who attends the same photography class (in the real world, not the virtual world) as I do to take me up on it. She is not actually representative either, as we actively show and comment on each other’s photos in the photo course as well. Eight days after deleting it, a third follower noticed. A photographer I meet in person here and there. All the others didn’t notice it until today, two weeks later, or didn’t think it was important to address me about it.

More Bad News

So I can really only conclude that Instagram is anything but for photographers. But I don’t make it that simple for myself. To be absolutely sure, I did a few more searches on the Internet. These not only confirmed my thesis, but brought to light even more bad news for photographers. So Adam Mosseri, boss at Instagram made the following statements in a Twitter video:

  • Instagram will focus on the following four Key Areas Creators, Video, Shopping and Messaging.
  • Creators refers to people who primarily create and publish videos.
  • On the topic of video, he literally said that Instagram is no longer a “photo-sharing app.”
  • Shopping on Instagram is set to become a new experience.
  • And Instagram users should be able to chat more (and thus stay on the platform even longer).

This new direction is the answer to the question of what Instagram users really want. And they found this answer with a systematic and extensive research. And we know by now that Instagram really does everything to treat their users as kings…

For photographers, this means either becoming a video producer sooner or later, or existing only as a negligible peripheral phenomenon on the platform.

What are the alternatives?

Are there any alternatives at all? And can a photographer do without Instagram at all?

These questions have been asked for years and have so far always led to the same sobering answers, which is why I will spare the reader the recurring lecture and give a short and concise answer.

There is no valid alternative to Instagram, at least that’s what self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the matter say. But self-experimentation with Flickr and Twitter can’t hurt.

What does this mean for me now?

I will continue to use and use Instagram, after all, I have met and appreciated many interesting people, some of them even in real life.

But I will use Instagram as I see fit, which will inevitably lead to my reach and follower count shrinking further. The first thing I’m going to do on a trial basis is post only “six-packs,” which isn’t really anything innovative. But at least my profile pages look somewhat acceptable and come closest to a portfolio page.

In addition, I will focus more on my portfolio page and my blog and use the good old Flickr more again. Flickr would come closest to my ideas as a photographer, if there were only more active users and if Flickr would get out of the retro look and no longer contemporary user interface and operation. Whether I will use Twitter more, I do not know yet. But it would be worth a try.

What about the future?

Whether my change in behavior will pay off remains to be seen. For sure, I will try more new things in photography outside of the hamster wheel. There will also be exciting and challenging work on the blog and the portfolio page, since my visibility on Instagram will be close to zero.

The departure into the unknown has at least given me a new perspective, additional motivation and fresh energy.