FAT. SALT. SUGAR. LIKES.


Photo by Artem Barinov

Photo by Artem Barinov

Why do artists create? They create to contribute something to the world. Contributing something to the world implies an audience. If the work of an artist is never seen, then what’s the point? Luckily, finding an audience today is not very hard. The difficult part is finding the right audience. 

In recent years many people have turned to Instagram as their go-to social networking platform. Creatives, musicians, photographers, athletes, you name it - the platform lets anyone join the circle and play the role of content creator and curator. Instagram’s language is predominantly visual, and while not everyone is a visual artist at heart, it is for those who are that Instagram poses the most significant risks. The reason for that is that visual artists take their visual content seriously, and when it fails to be received as such, as is often the case, numerous problems arise.

The Audience

Although social media makes it easy for artists to share their work worldwide, the material they publish reaches an increasingly uninvolved audience. Bombarded with tons of varied content on a daily basis, the eyes of the viewers have turned indifferent. A quick double-tap here and there and the scrolling continues as the memory of the images viewed moments ago fades promptly into nonexistence. 

The reality is that the viewer doesn’t really care for any particular piece of content - it is the amusing experience of moving through a lot of it that matters. The visual quality of the images plays little significance, as long as the escape-reality that they offer is more exciting than the moment at hand. Instagram is most often used as an escapism and procrastination platform, not an art appreciation platform. People want to connect to a relevant and steady stream of random information that will entertain them. 

It is important to understand that when a viewer decides whether or not to engage with content, the decision is instinctive, socially determined by the relationship of the viewer with the creator of the content, and thus highly subjective. The act of giving a like is important to the viewer, because he wants to speak out, make a statement, contribute an opinion. And while a like is equivalent to a nod of approval, it is by no means educated praise or objective criticism. Think of it as a pat on the back, no more. Likes are more so about the person who gives them, not the one who receives them. 

In addition, the value of any individual like is negligible. With an unlimited amount of likes, one could like as many pictures as he wants, regardless of quality. If you still believe that a like is valuable feedback then consider this: how many viewers remember the pictures they liked yesterday? Few to none. In comparison to buying a piece of art where real value was exchanged and a commitment was made to appreciating the work, likes fall very short. On Instagram people like pictures millions of times a day. The fact that someone liked your photo means almost nothing. 

The Artist

Meanwhile, on the other side, that of the artist who restlessly awaits engagement on a freshly posted image, the picture is quite different. Likes, comments, and followers quickly turn into a complex system of feedback that the artist begins to use to measure the overall success of his work (which he takes seriously). 

What we see here is a dramatic gap between how the same piece of content is perceived by the artist and by the audience. When a member of the audience dispenses a like it means — I like this (rooted in personal preference). The artist thinks, however, that that same like means — I like this (praise proportional to the quality of the piece). The artist then begins to think that people care, that his work is great, that likes are valuable. But this gap of perception is wide and unbridgeable. 

This is easily proven by a comparison between a well-executed photograph with a concept, and, say, a photo of a cute animal doing something amusing. Which one gets more likes? The animal. Of course things are much more complex than that, but the artist doesn’t always understand that Instagram is not about art, and that it is most definitely not about his art. The artist thinks that his content is under-appreciated, that he doesn’t spread it far enough, that he is misunderstood. In reality he is the one misunderstanding — the audience simply doesn’t care. 

But while likes are ineffective at accurately indicating the value of any particular piece of work, they quickly become vital to the artist for they begin to comprise a basic reward system that keeps the artist moving forward. Well, at least forward is the desirable direction. Unfortunately that isn’t always the way things are headed. Subconsciously the artist might establish a link between the amount of positive engagement he receives and his own self-worth. Content is very personal and it makes sense that such a link eventually emerges, but if not kept an eye on it may lead to serious consequences. Likes, after all, are little ego strokes, and with approval being so important in today’s world where the self-worth of any individual is daily belittled by the perfected media, they soon become to the artist the numbers that measure his value as a human being. The “misunderstood” artist is now hungry for approval. He can damn well do better than some random cat. Or at least so he thinks. And just like so the artist enters the game of who gets more likes thus handing the power to validate his self-worth over to the audience (that doesn’t care). Any reassurance the artist receives is pleasant. And when our pleasure chemistry is repeatedly and systematically involved then there is potential for dependence and abuse around the corner. 

Instagram becomes another one of those invisible modern drugs. We are addicted to sugar, we are addicted to information, we are addicted to likes. Instagram is the middleman, we are the junkies, our work is the currency, and likes are the stuff we crave. People go out of their way, exchange likes for likes, follow to be followed, and sell snippets of their lives every day to maintain the fleeting high. Our tolerance builds, our scrolling speed increases, and our appreciation of the content diminishes. Now this is starting to sound like a full-blown addiction -- not so #instagood.

Quantity and Subject Matter

If external reassurance of self-worth becomes of such great importance to the artist, then the artist will do anything to make sure the likes continue rolling in. An increase in likes can be accomplished in many ways and, strangely, improving the quality of the content is rarely the method artists fall back on. Instead they might begin to be more active on the platform, use more hashtags, interact more vigorously with others and, most commonly, post more content. The rate with which the audience consumes content is fast, so the artist must keep up in order to remain visible and to stay relevant. This encourages creation of content for the sake of sharing, not for the sake of quality. More content equals more reach, more engagement, more total likes, more attention. But more content is rarely more good content. Expert photographers say that if you make one great picture a year it is a good year. Today people churn out “great” pictures on a daily basis. It shows that the quality standard is lower than ever. Funnily, this in turn gives the audience less of a reason to genuinely like the content because, well, the content is becoming shit. But because engagement is essential to staying alive on social media the users continue to dispense likes to now inferior content, thus feeding back into the growing chain reaction. As a result the work of the artist remains mediocre, while engagement and likes increase in number due to the increasing spread of the artist’s profile, tricking the artist into thinking that he is on the right track and that his work is improving. Artists lose sight of their work and where it’s headed and begin to view the sharing aspect as more significant than the work itself. Basically, what hashtag to use begins to precede the why. Success begins to be measured in likes, not in contributed meaning, thus diminishing the value of the platform, the value of its individual users and the value of their content.

Platform Rules

Another strategy the artist might implement to receive more recognition and establish a stronger reputation on the platform is tailoring his content to the taste and the expectations of the audience. Soon the unaware artist’s vision will plummet to a low plateau where it will remain, held firmly in place by the false sense of security associated with being accepted into the platform’s conservative social system. 

Why did I call the platform conservative? Well, because any platform has its own set of written and unwritten rules and expectations. Content or behavior that do not fall within the range of platform-normalcy are quickly shunned in order to be eliminated. 

Let me give you an example of a recent Instagram experiment that I conducted. 

Just out of curiosity, one day I decided to post content that would not only go against normal platform behavior, but that would straight up attack the lives of individual members of the audience. Instead of posting photos of something cute or beautiful, I posted short snippets of text that put under fire the values as well as the daily habits of various social groups. 

As you can see, this isn’t uplifting kind of stuff, and I expected it to be unwelcome on the platform, but I didn’t expect it to have such a short run. Let me tell you how Instagram organically eliminated my content from its world. 

Along with the pictures shown above, I posted 10-15 most popular hashtags like #instagood, #love, #fun, etc. Those are the hashtags that are used the most often on the platform. On my regular content, with more specific hashtags I get on average anywhere from 10-40 likes. You would think that several pieces of content tagged with a high number of most popular hashtags would at least get the same amount of engagement, if not more. But here’s the interesting part — the content got virtually no engagement. 

So then I decided that I would evaluate the success of my experiment based on how much negative feedback and how many unfollows I get. I got three unfollows, which left me unsatisfied. After thinking for a while about this, such response now makes sense. On social media, engagement, even negative engagement, is better than no engagement. Backlashes indicate that the message hit the target, unfollows indicate that anger was stirred. But none of that happened as a result of my content. Maybe my little pictures sucked and simply failed to irritate the audience, however, considering the above-stated observations about the audience’s reason for being on Instagram, I am inclined to believe, simply, that nobody cared. My pictures were quietly left alone to rot in the corner. The process of elimination is simple - avoid any interaction with the content in question and let it slowly die a natural social media death. 

Several days later, I had to show my Instagram to a potential client, so I ended up removing the pictures. Business is business, and this is another hidden censorship hurdle that will prevent you from saying what you want. Look at how quickly Instagram murdered my artistic vision and dragged it off stage. I am the only one who still remembers those pictures. The rest of Instagram moved on and continued to not care.

Now those pictures of mine - I still stand by them. After all, I am just artistically expressing things that irritate me. Art does that all the time, but often less directly. Sometimes truths and criticisms need to be implanted into things like art or literature in order to be “socially acceptable”. Tell it straight and you might regret opening your mouth, but package it right and they will chew it up.

In any case, to continue receiving approval and to maintain his online reputation, the artist may unknowingly begin to tailor his content to match the taste and the expectations of the audience. His experimentation will subdue because creating anything that hasn’t been proven to work might mean failure, misunderstanding, and lost followers. And while perhaps the public reputation of the artist is somewhat safe in this arrangement, the vision of the artist is at serious risk. Eventually the artist’s creativity will be so stifled by the parameters of the platform that any novel ideas will be reduced to their less dangerous and more acceptable forms, which is detrimental to art. 

A Different Approach

The above arguments arose out of my misunderstanding that Instagram could be used as a reliable feedback tool for my work and as a sufficient creative outlet. However, as I came to realize after some time using it, Instagram isn’t an art appreciation platform - it is a social and marketing platform. This is an important difference to understand. Instagram is a fun sharing tool that aims to entertain and amuse its users within the boundaries of its platform-specific rules and preferences. It is not geared towards long-term appreciation of any individual piece of content, and it organically eliminates anything that threatens to perturb the easy-going, mobile-accessible getaway it provides. 

If the goal is to share meaningful, though-provoking content that is memorable, and to receive valuable feedback, another platform might be considered. Feedback is irrelevant on Instagram because everybody has an unlimited capacity to like and comment. If you have unlimited likes to give, then individual likes have no value. To make them more valuable, the number of likes and comments a user may dispense would have to be limited to, say, five a month. This way the user would be cautious with what to give his likes to. Only the best works would be encouraged with a high quantity of likes. Similar restrictions would apply to the content creators. If you could post only one image a month, how would the quality of your work change? Out of thirty pictures you would have posted otherwise, you would now only post the best one out of thirty. A thirty-fold increase in quality. Not bad, don’t you think?

But if every user could only post one image a month, then there would be no updated feed to visit daily, right? Yes, and that would be a good thing. Every day the user could launch the app and come back to the same images and occasionally new ones. Now the user would have a much longer period of time to appreciate the content. He would actually spend some time with the pictures, getting a chance to remember them, to find multiple dimensions and meanings within them. He would see them at different times of day, at different places, with different people, in different states of mind. This kind of platform would encourage long-term appreciation of art and get people to really know each other’s work. This is the platform that I will be looking forward to in the future. 

Think About What You Contribute

Maybe in today’s world getting a split second of someone’s attention is a great achievement but I think we are doing ourselves a disservice by accepting that this is all the attention our work deserves. Good work asks many questions. What am I trying to say? Why am I saying it? Did I get the viewer thinking? Did I contribute something meaningful and valuable to the world? Did I educate someone? Did I get a new friend? Basically, what did my work accomplish? Such questions cannot be asked, let alone answered in the fraction of a second of attention that content gets today. And these questions need to be asked. 

In this month’s interview I asked photographer Alveraz Ricardez why there seem to be no legendary photographers these days. Why is there so much mediocre work out there? Why do so few images make us feel anything? I think that the reason is because in the past people were committed to their work. They did it for the sake of doing it with the intention to explore the medium, test its limits, discover its power. They didn’t share their work right away and constantly. They didn’t receive unreliable feedback. It was just them and their work, which they questioned and from which they demanded answers.

None of this is to say that the work of artists who post to Instagram is bad. Not at all. There is amazing stuff out there. I sincerely hope that you do not limit sharing your work to Instagram and social media alone. Find a good place for your good work. 

If we revisit the first sentence of this article we will see the question that started this entire discussion: why do artists create? And the answer was: they create to contribute something to the world. I hope that this article gets you thinking and inspires you to contribute to our already oversaturated world something more meaningful and long-lasting than a string of mediocre content produced carelessly for the audience that doesn’t really care. 

Thanks for reading.