Here I am again musing on Instagram, something I seem to do once a year or so. What’s changed and why now? Continuing monopolistic lack of transparency has been magnified by actions of Instagram’s owner, Facebook, at a time of social unrest occurring during a global pandemic. It feels as if we have the right conditions for a perfect storm; history will be the judge.
It was recently implied I was over intellectualising social media by a user who saw the platforms purely as a messaging service (Facebook) and as a scrap book (Instagram). While I wished the user success in their social media handling I couldn’t help but feel such use ignored the harm that social media can do but it reminded me that most users have little idea of how their data is commercialised by the platforms.
Due to recent events I have decided to set my Instagram to private and stop posting for the foreseeable future. I would prefer to close my personal and project accounts altogether, but the platform is the best, and perhaps only, means of communication with certain people. I have laid out my professional opinion on Instagram in the past (here) but I have now, finally, pulled the trigger.
A recent factor in my decision was the revelation by Jack Lowe, of the Lifeboat Station Project, that his most successful Instagram post, which reached 60k impressions, led to just one website visit (his post here). This reinforced the feeling that Instagram does not lead anywhere but feeds a closed loop. Since announcing the shuttering of his account Jack has stated that he has gained an additional 200 new followers, which is evidence to the next Instagram fact. The platform is full of fake and spam accounts used by media buyers to purchase engagement to justify their existence. It is also not in Instagram interests to vet these accounts as user engagement is a factor in determining share price. Premium engagement has turned the platform into an arms race. However this lack of vetting is cost brands, according to cyber security firm Cheq, $1.3bn in 2019. That is to say brands pay influencers, expect to reach the influencer’s audience; if the influencer’s numbers are fake, the brand is paying to reach followers who do not actually exist.
Jack’s news came the same week I received yet another request from a menswear influencer, with a 75k following, for an image for free. I’ve worked with a number of influencers over the last decade and every single one has expected my work for free, in return for the ‘exposure’ it may garner from their accounts. Since the explosion of social media, I’ve never earned work in this manner and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve tried to explain my position to influencers. In the triangular relationship between brand- influencer- photographer, the brand garner sales, the influencer a gifted item while the photographer is left holding the empty basket of exposure. The influencer request was also accompanied by a request from a Singaporean university for ‘copyright permission’ for an image of mine. My reply requesting a fee for the licence has been met with silence.
Instagram has announced plans to allow creators to sell directly from the platform. This is, no doubt, another attempt to commercialise the platform through charging a sales percentage. It was suggested that photographers with a high following would benefit from print sales when this feature commences. Call me a cynic but I have no doubt that Instagram’s algorithms will prioritise those who spend to boost their engagement. In addition to this is the unsuitability of the platform for print sales. The platform is increasingly offering features it was not originally designed for which makes for a disjointed experience and print sales. The options and details of a print item, such as size, finish and sales profiles are finicky enough on a computer let alone a mobile based app such as Instagram.
The last factor in this equation is the lack of moral compass shown by Facebook. The platform has led to the eradication of a the universal baseline of facts and has encouraged and given fringe actors an amplified voice to spread disinformation which has allowed bad actors undue influence. These actors are given this reach due to their financial spend on the platform; this incestuous relationship benefits the few at the expense of the many. A more definitive list of this behaviour, complied by Jason Kint the CEO of Digital Content Next, a nonprofit trade association that develops research, holds informational events and provides policy guidance for the digital content industry, can be found here.
However the forecast is not all thunder and lightning in regards to data and social media. Apple’s latest iOS 14 update includes a tweak to the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) which has allowed advertisers to track aggregate data without revealing a person’s identity. iOS 14 makes IDFA opt- in, meaning all apps must ask permission before using this identifier for tracking. In Australia the country’s competition watchdog has been instructed to create a code of conduct which would see Facebook and Google pay for using media content, something these tech companies do not currently do. And in Germany, courts have ruled that Facebook must curb data collection following the view that Facebook has abused its market dominance gathering user information without consent. Most importantly, for a company that values it’s stock price, the #StopHateForProfit campaign has seen a number of global brands pause their Facebook advertising spends for the next few months. The list of companies has been growing daily and includes, for example, Starbucks who spend $95m per annum on the platform.
Time will tell whether Facebook and Instagram may be used for innocent messaging and scrap book purposes, but for now, for me, it’s light off and time to head for the exit.