2018_04_23 Reflections on Instagram - Andy Barnham

I admit I struggle with social media. It took me far longer than I like to admit to find a coherent strategy, voice and, more importantly as a photographer, look. False starts included images that were not my own, links to third party sites and lack of regularity. Even today the more negative I feel about social media and in particular Instagram, the less I post and therefore the worse I feel about the platform. It’s a downward spiral. There’s often a lengthy delay from my taking an image until being allowed to publish by which time I’m concentrating on something else and my focus has wavered. Having initially posted iPhone images, these have been replaced with dSLR images as the standard on platforms has increased, making the images more considered, but also far less spontaneous. Perhaps I should have stayed in a photographic niche to build a dedicated and motivated following in order to become known as ‘The’ menswear or food or portrait photographer. While I love photographing lifestyle in general, I often feel like a jack of all trades and master of none.

Given it’s ubiquity today, it’s easy to forget and overlook certain facts about social media and in particular Instagram, the most photographic orientated platform. Firstly Instagram is owned by Facebook. In April 2012, Facebook bought the then 18month old Instagram for $1billion. At the time, Instagram had 30million followers and no quantifiable value. As of December 2017 Instagram had 800million monthly users and was estimated to be worth $100billion. Influencer Marketing is anticipated to reach $2billion by 2019. And yet…

Given FB’s current data scandal and how it’s business model is based on hovering up as much personal info as possible, it should come as no surprise that as soon as Instagram was purchased, an attempt was made to change the T&Cs. Depending on your point of view, Instagram did or did not clarify their new T&Cs to allow companies to use all images to promote third party content without notification about the transaction and that Instagram ‘may not always identify paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.’ After user outrage, Instagram backtracked but, personally, I was still so aghast at original T&Cs that I deactivated my account; like many I never read them when I joined. As I believed Instagram to be a useful tool to a photographer, I rejoined some time later, though under a different handle as Instagram did not allow me to reactivate my old account (though I’m sure they retain the right to use those images). To this day Instagram’s T&Cs remain, in my opinion, abhorrent and I continue to worry that their T&Cs will become the standard for other apps. Petapixel have a good post on them here and Legal Cheek their own here. In simple terms, while Instagram observe the right for users to own their own images, the platform can basically do anything they like with both your images and your data without notifying you including changing their T&Cs. The price you pay for using the ‘free’ platform is allowing Instagram is monetise your contributions as they see fit. Users are basically giving Instagram the means to make money while not directly benefitting financially from the platform.

RRL Rider's Tour 2014, France

The quote ‘if you can’t spot the sucker, it’s you’ is often associated to poker, but it is equally applicable to social media. Today I find it very hard to see Instagram as anything other than an advertising platform, but one lacking any transparency and regulation. There is no external oversight and when the platform is so monumentally successful there is no incentive for Instagram to effectively self regulate. We’ve blindly trusted the levels of self regulation that exist are sufficient and benevolent. We acknowledge and accept television and print adverts as being paid for by companies and yet when it’s common practice to pay social influencers to post on their accounts, there is little requirement for them to disclose if they’re being paid for in either in monetary terms or goods. Indeed I know of some instances where social influencers lie or obfuscate this point, hoping to maintain an impartial reputation to their followers.

Older companies generally resisted online and then social media out of mistrust and misunderstanding. They are now dipping their toes, led by marketing agencies pushing them towards social influencers believing it a good way to drive traffic and sales. Social media budgets increase year on year, but very few brands or agencies complete any due diligence; what is the ROI and what is a good level of engagement? Indeed some agencies advocate low engagement levels (less than 10%), seemingly to deliberately set low expectations for their clients. The larger the social media account, the lower the levels of both ‘likes’ and ‘engagement’, largely due to the fact that the higher the levels of followers, the more bought likes and bought engagement due to botting. Good engagement is closer to 15%. I believe the days of reasonable organic growth are over; only accounts that spend on the platform are promoted. The more you spend, the more you’re promoted; it’s an arms race. It is virtually impossible to accurately gauge ROI due to this. And yet brands flock to the platform, led by ‘experts’, in the belief that they’ll gain customers and if they spend on influencers. Anecdotal evidence shows while specific placements may lead to sales, it will only help sales of the item shown and those customers are one off spenders and do not become repeat customers. ie, it only benefits lines the pockets of the social influencer and not, in the long term, the brand.

Berry Bros. & Rudd, St James's, London

Some users know or deliberately turn a blind eye to all the platform’s faults. For some, clients no longer look at websites, but start their search on Instagram and no look further than the number of followers and likes. Data sharing, lack of transparent ROI, low engagement just isn't important to some. While I question why anyone so one eyed would be in charge of a budget, it happens, and they are.

Maybe it’s sour grapes that I don’t get approached to post on my account, maybe it’s because as I confessed, I’m not successful on or at social media. As far as I know I’ve never attracted new work from images I’ve posted on social media while I’ve certainly had work stolen and misappropriated from various platforms. Maybe it’s time for me to stop flogging a dead horse and work on other avenues for my photography. However, and despite whatever my personal reservations are, be careful. It’s very easy to start engaging in the arms race of followers and likes and the lure of easy and fast sales for brands is tempting. If the levels of likes on an account look to good to be true and an influencer appears in shiny new clothes more often than you change your socks, the chances are they’re not as transparent as you’ve been led to believe. The grass is often not greener on the other side of the fence and there are snake oil salesmen everywhere.

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