The following is a text I've been thinking about writing for years. Both as a cautionary tale to anyone getting into photography, and as an explanation for why I stopped. I've been reluctant to share this, but here's what happened.
Starting from when I was a kid, I've had a fascination with photography. I used to loan my mom's camera and capture everything that caught my eye. I wasn't any good at all at the start, but after getting my own camera as a birthday present, I improved.
Sometime after that, I started an Instagram account. At first, it was private, and only a few friends viewed what I posted. Limited reach. Getting encouragement and feedback kept me going.
Getting older, I made my account public. The motivation for this was to get more feedback. I’d always lacked any significant mentorship in my photography, and I wanted that from people who were better than me.
The discovery mechanism on Instagram was mostly based on hashtags. To get your posts noticed on a hashtag page, you need to get it popular. It wasn't obvious then, but that was the start of significant pain.
So I started using the hashtags that all the other posts used. Now I started getting likes and followers from strangers. At first, it was delightful. This many people like what I do? Wow.
What I didn’t know was that for each new like and follow, a little dopamine was sent out into my brain. Every little bit of attention was a hit of a drug I didn't know about. After a while, you get used to it—wanting more and setting ever higher standards for yourself. Did the latest post get fewer likes than the last few? The photo must be worse.
Soon, I started thinking about how my photos would be perceived even before taking them. I'd reject compositions that I liked before even clicking the shutter. All based on a vague grasp of what appeared to perform well.
Gaming the algorithm
Set on getting more: likes, followers, comments, I soon found ways to improve my metrics:
- Optimizing hashtags. Post with tags like #nature also used other tags. I'd locate these and fill my own posts with them. There are even websites made for this.
- Posting at specific times. I would look at the dominant geographic regions of my followers, and map out optimal times to post. For example, lunchtime on the US west coast.
- Faking interest. I'd view posts on a hashtag, open the profiles of the posters, and like a bunch of their posts. This led people to my profile.
- Deleting posts. If any of my posts performed badly, I'd delete them.
Looking back at these tactics, they seem desperate. In a way, they were. I found myself in a highly competitive environment—too young to reflect on what I was doing: chasing metrics. I had completely lost my original goal in the process.
Using the tactics above, I reached 700 followers. All at the expense of mental health, which had gotten worse the further I got. By then, even picking up my camera gave me anxiety. So in March 2017, I stopped. My mental health quickly improved.
I've been thinking a lot about whom to blame here. There seem to be no simple answers. At its core, Instagram is simply a photo-sharing platform. Maybe the situation could have been prevented from my side. Still, I know that many others use it in similar ways, whether they want to or not. With what’s coming out → now about Facebook’s internal research, I suspect this experience is not uncommon.
Solution (in progress)
I haven't posted anything on Instagram since then →. I'd still like to get back to taking and showing some people photos, but I'm still working on the best way to do this.
For now, using my phone reduces friction a lot. Some of these go on my Unsplash, but I'm still looking for the right place. Twitter appears to have a more natural and personal discovery mechanism due to interactions from people you follow being exposed on the feed. But I don’t know. If you know of a better platform, please contact me!