Don't let the algorithm ruin something beautiful
I’m tossing my hat into the ring, in the exact same arena where scores of people have already done so before me. We all know taking Instagram too seriously is a detriment to your grey matter, so why am I choosing to pepper my thoughts over the existing narrative? Because freelancing can feel like an endless hot mess of a night that I'm constantly trying to navigate, whilst clinging onto my sanity for dear life. In sharing my illustration work online, my mind seems to toe the line between crumbling self-esteem and overarching indifference to likes and shares. On the one hand, higher Instagram followings can equate to art directors and potential clients (and let’s not forget new friends!) discovering your work - AKA your main source of income. On the other hand, Instagram can also have little to do with your success as a freelancer outside of absorbing your creative energy and making you feel like your excluded from a super secret club that you’ll certainly never be a part of.
I think the thing that saddens me most about this whole algorithm debacle is the way it seems to harvest a very real undertone of stress in my creative friends. It’s trashing how artists perceive the value of their work. It’s a party pooper! I’d like to share my thoughts in the hopes that it might comfort those who (like me) need yanking back from the edge of overwhelm on occasion.
Once again, if you’re new here - I am not an expert. I have, however, worked in social media before and I’ve got a whole! lotta! thoughts! I’m exclusively talking about illustration in this post, but I think the overarching theme may transcend to everyone currently in arms with their feeds.
Instagram -/- Output
Hop on into my way-back-machine and let’s briefly jet back to 2016. I set up an Etsy page making pins for movies that didn’t have merch. Kinda strange, but at the time I genuinely thought the world needed Heathers (1988) themed pins. It began initially as a side-hustle-creative-outlet in the wake of my postgrad, I was super green about social media and I wasn’t trying to freelance. The curious thing was, I yielded steady sales, connected with groovy people, all with less than 100 followers on Instagram. Eventually, I pivoted to pursue freelance illustration, but it always struck me as odd that I managed to get hundreds of sales sans social media strategy**. I recently caught wind of a social media influencer honing over 2 million Instagram followers, but unable to sell 36 t-shirts on their online store. I don’t bring this up as gossip fodder, but really because it got me thinking about the disconnect between follower count, sales, work, and connection. Instagram is really sold to us as an essential element of freelancing, but in my opinion numbers alone aren’t a measure of value.
**I don’t mean to tiptoe too deeply into Etsy strategy here, its a different kettle of fish - but it’s food for thought. Obviously spreading the word of your beautifully crafted goods is essential, but I’m questioning how effective IG really is as the omniscient platform.
Numbers -/- Connection
To unpack this further - let’s imagine you’ve got 100k followers. You mostly post memes, littered amongst pictures of your dog Kenny (such a good boy). Your posts are super shareable, so your interaction rate is sky-high. All sounds good, right? If you suddenly start peddling some beautiful risograph prints of your illustration work, I’m guessing in all likelihood you won’t sell a whole bunch. That's not what people are following you for. The 100k you’ve secured aren’t being served by your (beautiful) art - They are there to lol at dank memes on their work breaks. Someone with say, 1000 followers on their illustration page might end up selling more than you. At the risk of getting a little preachy, I really do think that it’s more fruitful to have 100 followers who are invested in the work you make and connect with you as a person, than 10k followers who intermittently jab the like button. I find this way of looking at Instagram to be really freeing - it means I can start anywhere, with any number of followers. I can create value for the people who follow me by being open to connection, whilst also letting my work speak for itself.
Instagram can be (kinda) cool, too
I think Instagram is magical in many ways. I live in a city that is arguably *not* the creative hub of the world, and yet, with the flick of a wrist I can connect with an illustrator I really admire on the other side of this clammy planet. I can chat with people who’ve supported my work and find out more about them, even become friends. I can land work with clients who are based on a continent I've never even been to. I also find it pretty useful as a barometer for the amount of work I create in between client work and other work commitments. Creating (semi) regular content keeps my mind in training for the kinds of projects I hope to secure with dream clients, irrespective of likes and comments. Instagram has opened my world, so for that, I can only tip my hat off to it.
Instagram exists inside a vacuum, but you don’t
What I’m really trying to pin down here is that Instagram isn’t really a true measure of anything, despite what the dopamine hits tell you. Your entire audience belongs to the algorithm, it’s a figurative gatekeeper. The algorithm literally decides who sees your posts, for how long, and it can be bought. I've been trying to think of ways to have a direct link to my small pocket of friends/followers without a middle man - maybe a newsletter? Perhaps a newsletter is something you might even consider for yourself. I’d certainly subscribe!
I ultimately don’t want to get absorbed into the upside-down of guessing algorithms, I’d rather spend that time nurturing my tiny corner of the internet. My work is my value and the connections I make are what binds the mixture. I always have time for anyone who messages me, because its a privilege that someone would take time out of their day to reach out. I never want to alter what I create in lieu of what I think the algorithm wants because it’s a losing game. I guess these days I'm just trying not to take it too seriously - I used to take my Myspace page pretty seriously and now that's nothing but a glimmer of a memory in 2005.