Instagram, the algorithm and I

After my latest post on Instagram, I said I needed a bit time to process. Well, I did as promised and here I am, telling you my thoughts on what happened.


It seems that I ran into a shadow ban. All of a sudden nearly no one could see my art and I couldn‘t find my images even when I searched for the hashtags I‘d indexed them with. After a few days of this I was really frustrated. Even most of my followers wouldn’t see my art, because the algorithm wouldn’t show it to them. And before you lump me into the „oh, she just wants likes!“ category: Yes, likes are fun and I really appreciate them, who doesn’t. I also am a business woman and having followers is important for my business. 


But there is another issue underlying, that disturbs memuch more: Ever since I’ve started posting again after my long break, I’d noticed that my images only were shown to a part of my followers. Maybe a fifth or a forth of the actual number of followers I have. I realized this phenomenon quite soon after I’d started to post again, but decided to just pull through. I had this long break and this was the negative effect that was to be expected. But it was extremely slow to change, and it frustrated me.


I researched what was happening and found out, that Instagram seemingly does „test showing“ with the images posted. The first hour after posting is the one that determines if your images are getting a wider platform or not. To post a „good“ or „valuable“ image according to the algorithm, it needs to be liked by at least 50% of the people who see it in the first hour. If the rate lies lower, there won’t be a significant widening of the audience. The chance is, that only the most dedicated of your fans will see it during the next 24 hours and that it might be found via the hashtags you used to index. But nothing more.


In the eyes of the algorithm my art is not valuable. Even though my posts would usually rack up quite a bunch of likes during the three, or four days after posting, they would only make 10, maybe 15 likes during the crucial first hour. Not enough, to get a bigger audience. And by that, I mean that not even all of my followers got to see what I do. Honestly, it was a bitter pill to swallow, that my art is not deemed „valuable“ enough by some algorithm. I decided to buckle down and keep posting. I added stories to the mix. This one was hard for me, because I am a very introverted person. So I had to figure out, what I am fine with sharing, might even like to share, and how to keep out everything else. Also how to produce material for the stories. It added another thing I have to think about and juggle. It might not look like much, but for my brain it is adding stress.


I posted seven days a week, one image a day, most days I even managed a story to go with it. I tried to find hashtags that fit very well, and be as consistent as I could manage. Isn’t that what they tell you all the time? And slowly, slowly things began to grow.


And then, all of a sudden, everything screeched to a halt. Maybe 10 or 15 people out of 700 got to see my art. It was as if I‘d been caught under an invisibilty cloak.


I watched this a few days; totally puzzled. I did my research and after a few hours of reading, I realized that what happened to me must be the infamous shadow ban. I wrote to Instagram‘s help desk and didn‘t receive an answer. 


I decided to take a break and process in peace.


When I started out on Instagram five and a half years ago, it was this wonderful platform where you could share your images and other people could find it. It was chronologically organized and not many other restrictions were in place. You could connect with other, like minded persons. I actually don’t like using social media very much. I am intensly private in most areas of my life and to be honest, many of the things that people share on facebook clutter up my mind to a degree, that I avoid facebook altogether. It depletes me and robs my energy in no time. Social media in general has no great lure for me. 


But let‘s go back to the beginning of my story with Instagram. I started posting in February 2015.

That year I was struggling very much. My mom had died, one of my kids got bullied badly at school, just to mention a few of the myriad of things happening in my life then. It nearly ate me alive and I urgently needed something to bring back joy and keep me sane in this turmoil. I decided to become an illustrator. I wanted to work toward something that could ultimately provide for my life while making me happy.


I have drawn all my life and am a very creative person. I did miss it badly in all the upheaval and the decision to haul it back into my life, was the best ever.


But even though I have drawn all my life, I wasn‘t very confident in it. I was untrained and had a lot to learn. Because of my family and life situation I decided to learn at home with online classes and no formal curriculum as in a college. I broke it down into parts. I defined goals: what I wanted to learn until when, to add accountability for me. But as good as the decision of learning from home had been, I had nobody to talk about art. Nobody to swap ideas or show my art to and get feedback in return. There was literally no one who could relate to what I wanted to do. The best I could get was well-meaning acceptance, but even that was rare. 


This is where Instagram came into the mix. Even though I wasn’t into social media, I found the idea of sharing my endeavours with others and getting feed back wonderful. So I started out on Instagram. This helped me to develop a steady work attitude again. I got to see lots of art from other artists, they inspired me, I learned things from them, and I got to share my art, too. Others liked it, I got to know them a bit and had a place to show the experiments and try out new things. I connected with people all over the world. And this made up for the „art vacuum“ in my direct environment. 


But the turmoil of my private life interferred from time to time, I got sick for a long time, and we added to our house. These were all times I put Instagram on hold, because I just couldn‘t juggle it all. When everything was taking so much of my energy, I didn‘t have any left for Instagram. I worked in spurts and starts toward my goal. Steady in the end, but very slow.


And Instagram changed as well. All of a sudden it wasn’t chronological anymore. Hashtags became more and more a science. After every break I had to take it was worse. It became more and more work to be seen on Instagram. Not just seen by everybody, but seen by the people I already had a connection with. At the same time I wanted to build a livelihood and wherever I went they told me, to harness social media for your business. Work with the algorithm. Be consistent, don’t take breaks, post every day. Do this. Do that.


After coming back in April, I did what I could. No more break on weekends, always posting a story as well. Using hashtags. Planning what I would draw in advance. And I learned a lot, sure, but it was quite time consuming as well. And for me social media is hard. My head runs over with a thousand ideas and I have to sort them through consistently and figure out ways how to ensure that I work consistently without hopping around to much to the tune of my never ending stream of ideas. I could sit around the entire day and dream. So for me the question is: Do I harness all that energy for appeasing an algorithm on social media that changes in the blink of an eye, or do I channel that energy into on of my creative projects?


I tried to keep the effort acceptable by establishing routines. But I think this is what ultimately ran me into the shadow ban. I got to consistent. 


And here I have the dilemma now. I really like the interaction with the people I connected with. I love how the daily post spurs me on to think and play and try things out. It helps me think through things visually.


But I dislike very much how the platform, that started out with an „everybody can play“ attitude, narrowed down. Now it is far removed from the time, where you could post and people could discover simply by searching for a hashtag. Now the algorithm wants more and more of my attention, of my work, and of my money. It pushes people to spend money on adds, and has become a gatekeeper itself. 


And this is the problem: We started out with the promise, that we don’t have to pander to the classic gatekeepers in companies, add agencies and publishing houses anymore. But those times are over. Instagram has become the gatekeeper itself. I have no control whatsoever who gets to see my things. I am prodded to spend a lot of time, and, if Instagram gets what it wants, money, with a promise that is farther and farther away. And not only that, Instagram gets all that data about me, which in itself is a huge business for them. I am sucked into working more and more for the algorithm with little in return.


Now I have to ask myself, can I justify an hour per day for the possibility of interacting with the people I want. Because by now it is only a possiblity. No matter what I do, there is no garanty that you can see what I post. Seven hours per week are a lot of time if I can spend them on a creative project. Or to find out the classic gate keepers and contact them the old fashioned way. 


Oh, and there is one thing more that has gotten incredibly annoying: the sheer amount of males sending me messages or following me, and pestering me with messages like „Hello pretty!“ I guess most of them are bots, but annoying nonetheless. My account is clearly about art only, and a very small niche of art at that. It is obvious that I don’t look for anything else. It feels intrusive and takes away joy. And what I hear around me, I am not the only woman who feels that way. There are many of us, who feel pestered by that. And I don‘t see that Instagram is doing anything against that.


So, how will I go on?

First thing, I have set my account to private again. I can‘t control who gets to see my images anyway, so I don‘t want to see how far it reached anymore. It only annoys me more. I will post as often as it feels fine for me. I‘ll take weekends off if I want to, and the holidays with my family will not be infringed by posting stuff on Instagram either. And I will look for other ways to get what Instagram doesn‘t do for me anymore. I also have deactivated all notifications and banished Instagram onto the last page of my screen. So even if there would be notifications visible I can‘t see them unless I am activily scroll to the last page of my phone. I will visit only once a day, or maybe not at all. If you send me a message I will answer, but it can take a day or two. The same goes for any comments. 


If you are fine with all that, I look forward to see and hear from you. If not, unfollow me. 


Have a great day!



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