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The Decline of Instagram as a Photography Platform (Video Killed the Social Networking Star)

Instagram may not be dead but I feel like it’s dying or in decline. And I know I’m not alone in saying that. IG has lost its ability to spark joy and is way too commercial and bloated with features. Do we need to become video editors to compete in the reels arena or connect our accounts to Whatsapp? Maybe I just wanna post photos and keep up with a few friends.

I am an experienced user and I have insider knowledge of the best and worst that the platform offers. As it becomes dominated by video I have considered using the platform less and focusing on other social media or my own websites (I own this site tdotshots.com).

Here are some insights, both personal and professional, from using Instagram since 2017. A lot has changed in six years and overall I feel the app is a mixed bag. Part annoyance and part blessing. Is Insta in decline? I argue yes. But let’s get into it.

My early experiences on Instagram (when the platform was fun)

I joined Instagram six years ago, in early 2017. It has become a primary place for me to share one of my main passions, photography. It’s also obviously a social outlet. I made some good friends through IG. It was an amazing media and social networking platform.

By the way, here’s my first post on Instagram from February 2017. This is a heavy snowfall shot on Roncesvalles Ave. I’m pretty sure it was taken with a smartphone and the shutter was long enough to capture these amazing streaks of snow.

That image was taken before I became interested in professionalizing my photography. I almost never post smartphone pics as I’d prefer to work with my higher quality Nikon and Lumix cameras.

Now small confession, I have deleted some early posts where I documented more or my personal life, as I believe my family and friends deserve their privacy, and I started working on developing my photographer-designer persona and work life. So there was a slighly more personal aspect to my early feed and I have since archived or deleted those images.

Anyway, for me Instagram was a really fun and rewarding place to hang out. Initially I had no business account, and using social to promote myself in a business sense was pretty far off in the future. Early on I followed almost anyone who followed me, naively trusting strangers, until I realized they often followed to unfollow soon after. Mostly it was positives though. I grew my interest and passion for photography and met some photo pals in those first few years.

Photos and Social Networking Ruled the Original ‘Gram

On a personal level I miss the era of mostly seeing my friends carefully curated photo collections on Instagram. Some of my old friends still use Insta this way, posting personal or random shots from their lives and cities. I still see these posts but they are rare, as IG ants to push me down a rabbit hole of random popular reels.

When I started on Instagram I was rather late to the app. IG started way back in 2010, and I signed up in early 2017. Boy was it fun. I did start with posting photos, by adding filters and editing inside the app but after some months I edited outside of the app, as I thought the filters were kind of gross. I still don’t like the way some people edit their images using a too-filtered look that depends on cool or warm tints (this pet peeve I’ll document in a future post).

I have used Instagram like a maniac if I’m to be honest. I have put thousands of hours into the social media platform, posting my images and cultivating a decent following, along with establishing the Toronto photo community and hub @tdot_shots. Admittedly it feels equally like it was a a combination of time wasting and personal life enhancement. I spent time mindlessly scrolling and I also made many “in real life” friends from the contacts I met in the app. That had a lot to do with launching Tdot Shots as a community event platform and hosting photo walks since fall 2018. So I can claim, legitimately, that Insta also has a positive side.

Within a short time I had decided to launch a feature page and promote other photographers around the city. In spring 2018 I established @tdot_shots and by fall 2018 I had held my first photo walk. Here are photos of the groups from the earliest photo walk meetups.

There are people in these photos that I still hang out with, have collaborated with and call friends, including Paul, Scott, Taku, Tyler, and Thane. Thus, I made these contacts and pals through the use of the Instagram app as a social networking platform.

Photo walk group October, 2018
Photo walk group December, 2018

Social networking used to rule apps like Instagram and Facebook. Now they are full of ads riding the coat-tails of our uploaded personal media. There is this idea too, of the “content creator” label. Is that what we are? Content creators, if you think about it, sounds somewhat shallow. What happened to writer or artist or photographer? Do we exist just to make content for corporations? Maybe I will write about this topic in a future post.

Roots of Instagram and Facebook’s Feature Creep

For five or more years the app has been changing from. a social networking platform to a social media and user-generated content app. Simply put we used to use apps like this to connect and now we use them to publish. And the companies make money off our content.

IG really started changing in the last year, as the promotion of Reels finally took over and we started seeing fewer of our friends photo-based posts. Advertising seemed to get more common in the feed and when combined with the prevalence of reels or video, the platform had firmly changed. People rightfully complained it was becoming TikTok. I saw that IG was also chasing the world’s most popular video platform, YouTube. All in all these massive changes foretold the death of Instagram.

Now I’m sure that Instagram is not technically dying. Younger people, like Millennials / Generation Y may not be signing up in droves, but it still has 1 billion users. The death I describe and feel in my bones, is the death by a thousand cuts of commercialization and de-personalization. Maybe as a Gen X-er I feel more attached to classic art including photography? I’m really not fond of Insta asking me when I upload a group of photos if I want to turn these images into a reel? No Thanks!!!!

Instagram was founded in October 2010, by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and for the first six years it was all about photos and following friends. Stories was introduced in 2016, followed by IGTV in 2016 and finally Reels in 2022. Before those tech intrusions that copied from other apps such as Snapchat, YouTube and Tiktok, Instagram was a pretty focused place to post photography and interact with your peers.

Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder

There are tons of anecdotal accounts and books that document this nascent social media platform and its initial buzz based on filtered images and cultivating a gallery of your own images (also known as your “feed”). Instagram was taken over by Facebook in 2012, and this really upended the vibe of the company and how the app and site worked. Eventually advertising and feature creep really took hold, frustrating even the founders who were promised autonomy by FB. By 2018, Systrom and Krieger exited the company.

Beyond the ads what is killing Instagram is the push to get people to change their accounts into business accounts and monitor their “reach”, “engagement”, and “impressions.” At the same time that you could get data on your posts and stories, Faceook, the parent company tolled out the copy-cat “Reels,” a Tiktok clone and it was made apparent that if you wanted eyeballs on your content you’d need to start producing reels aka tall format video, tailor made for viewing on smartphones.

Instagram becomes a chore or “part time job”

I don’t want to dwell or obsess about stats but it is a part of using the app so let me address it a bit. I feel there’s a clear parallel between the commercialization of the app and the loss of the personal appeal of the platform.

In 2022 I saw my personal reach go down dramatically. My likes and comments were the first indicators and stats to plunge. I was aware that IG was pushing Reels and knew that my content was being seen less than other video-focused media.

I recall that in the past two years as FB started really commercializing IG, that some people on Insta posted “if you see this post please comment on it” posts because they felt the “algorithm” was cheating them and they wanted people to comment to trigger a renewal of the positive buzz that glued us all together. At the time Instagram was declaring that in order to ensure that others saw your content, you had to keep “engagement” high.

One amateur photographer I know in the GTA photo community told me in DMs that he felt overwhelmed. “It’s like a part time job,” he declared. And I know he was right. My time-tracking in my phone told me I regularly spent 8-10 hours inside the app each week. After that I vowed to reduce my time, and eventually I did reduce my time spent, and I found I could spread my time across my multiple accounts which had the benefit of growing social clout for business purposes.

Anyway at the end of 2021 it was the peak of image posts for my personal account. I have the username @tdot_mike and I was getting between 300-800 likes on my posts. However by mid 2022 I was averaging 200-350 likes per post. That translates to a 50% drop in engagement, even though I didn’t really change what I was doing.

Here’s a street photo I posted that got more than 800 likes, a really incredible number, which was not unusual at that time.

What happened? Why did IG slap me with a greater than 50% drop in engagements over the next few months and into 2022? I believe it was that I had not kept up with the switch to Reels and IG was punishing me and everyone else. Many stories posted by others told a similar tale.

One last thing was that it also felt as though there had developed a great wave of “follow unfollow” behaviour in that people followed me and unfollowed very soon after (it’s a despicable practice that even people within the Toronto photo community employ to grow their accounts). That is on ongoing issue though and also deserves its own post.

So what to do? Flee to other platforms and build a website

Some people seem to have doubled down, posting even more content to get views. Some photographers regularly post multiple stories a day, at least two photo posts and regular reels. It’s annoying to the rest of us but IG rewards them and their follower counts grow.

It goes without saying that posting videos or reels will ensure that you get some potential additional exposure as well. However the caveat being that not all reels get large traffic. Many end up languishing, and if your audience doesn’t like your reels they will mute you or even unfollow you. Reels are intrusive to a degree, especially if you have sound on and music plays automatically.

Meanwhile a bunch of us lament the loss of the old Instagram and continue to focus mainly on our photography and posting image posts. I ave started encouraging quality over quantity, and I advise new photographers to post well curated carousels with between 3-10 of their images. This ensures people spend more time looking at your post which helps tell IG your post is worth looking at.

All of the above are helpful, but many photographers flocked to Twitter and Vero in the past year. I know Tyler aka @tylyersjourney has been active for a while, growing his profile, particularly as IG changes how the platform works. Not long ago I received so many invites to join Vero. I created a Tdot Shots profile though I didn’t put a personal page up.

One of the best solutions is to establish your own independent media channels. Since founding a social media platform is out of the question (for most), it makes sense to launch a website. Many people do and many people don’t. I never understood why people didn’t create their own sites. I’ve been doing my own sites since I first created my own media in the 1990s. My site tdot.com went online in 1998! Yes I’m that old.

I now have a few of my own websites, many under the banner of Tdot.com which is my design and education agency. My main sites: tdotshots.com, tdot.com/studio and tdot.com/events. And you can hire me through tdot.com.

Are you interested in creating a website? It’s absolutely essential for self-promotion and owning your own home on the web is very satisfying. I can assist you with getting started. All you need is a domain and web hosting.

Read these articles and then get in touch if you want advice.

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Thanks for reading. I hope some of this was educational and entertaining.

If you appreciate this post please follow me on Instagram. I’m @tdot_mike. If you engage with my posts I’ll make note and try to follow you back. πŸ˜€

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Hope you have a great holiday season and super 2023!

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