First Hand — Nine creatives reflect on the perks and pitfalls of using Instagram for their work
Last month, we published an article that evoked a bigger reaction than anything we’ve ever posted at Lecture in Progress. In case you missed it, the topic was Instagram-induced anxiety, and the writer was Handsome Frank co-founder Jon Cockley. The huge wave of responses only emphasised the need for more conversation on this issue, as we observed shares, commentary and spin-off discussions that reached far beyond the UK.
Taken aback by the sheer number of people who engaged with the piece, Jon says reactions came from beyond the creative industry too; “We had comments and reposts from musicians, fitness and lifestyle bloggers. People are becoming more aware of how social media affects their thinking, creative output and how it makes them feel.” Here we’re sharing reflections from nine creatives who responded to the piece, to hear their side of the story.
Limiting the desire to delete
For London-based illustrator Zoë Barker, there’s a fine line between seeking valuable feedback from an online audience to help your work develop, and allowing that feedback to dictate your creative output and your confidence.
“Instagram is a funny place, because to use it in a healthy way and not let it hinder your creative process means not caring how well an image is received, or how many ‘likes’ or followers you achieve. But that’s not how the platform is geared to work – or our self worth, for that matter.
“I feel like my practice as an artist-illustrator involves a lot of self-criticism in order to develop. I think that’s healthy. But, for me, Instagram propels this into unhealthy territory. It’s so easy to look at beautifully curated feeds of trend-driven imagery and then look at your own feed and just start hitting delete.
“I find it helpful to only follow people I find inspiring and positive – and to not follow people who’s work is similar to my own, which at least helps to reduce comparison.”
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t
Leeds-based graphic designer Max Lilley recognises the value of social media as a platform for increasing the reach of your work, but he is also aware of the downsides this can have when it comes to mental wellbeing.
“I think a lot of creatives have the same view about the mental impact of social media, as well as the amount of work it takes to maintain a presence. Mental health is a huge issue and I feel that the extra work to try and plant a flag in the creative landscape has an obvious effect. It’s a double-edged sword. I can’t speak from the perspective of someone who suffers from bad anxiety, but I have certainly felt a negative chemical change in my brain when it comes to today’s social media world!
“Recently, I’ve been purposefully limiting the amount I use social media and it has had a positive impact on my mood but my follower count and engagement have decreased. When it comes to using Instagram, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.”
Post what you post and move on
Texas-based illustrator Kristen Barnhart has an extensive social media following. She tells us how adopting a do-what-you-do approach helps her maintain a good relationship with the platform and her audience.
“I think that spending time complaining and worrying about ‘the algorithm’ is a waste of good brain cells. Post what you post – if it doesn’t get a lot of likes, move on or delete it and try again later. I don’t want the algorithm to have control over me. I’m not going to ask my followers to go and like an image of mine – I’d rather have it happen naturally, whether they see it or not. I believe my work speaks for itself and shows my passion, regardless of the likes.”
Avoiding trend temptation
Although she’s struggled with Instagram’s trend-driven algorithms, New York-based illustrator Caitlyn Knepka-Notaro endeavours to make her interaction with the platform more mindful and less comparison-based.
“I’ve always found it hard not to look at what colour schemes are on trend, or which styles seem to be most popular. My page has never seemed to grow at the rate I want, and it’s tempting to change your art to accommodate the trends of the day. I’ve definitely been guilty of this.
“Lately, after I post a piece of art, I shut Instagram for a few hours, instead of constantly refreshing. Just this small act has helped lessen the anxiety of getting ‘likes’. I’ve also been reflecting on my art as a whole, and have made sure everything I post is something I believe in and feel satisfied with, rather than trying to create something that looks like someone else’s work. I’ve stopped scrolling through other people’s artworks, and I believe that has helped as well.”
Instagram levels the playing field
For London-based illustrator Charlotte Ager, Instagram is an essential tool for attracting commissions and showcasing her work globally. Like most people, she’s had moments of anxiety with it, but she’s realised that staying true to her creative vision is the key to constructive social media interaction.
“My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I find it difficult to talk about my work, but having a platform where I can choose what to share allows my work to talk for me, which is what I want. It’s allowed me to share art around the world and receive commissions from people who would have never seen my work otherwise. A great aspect of it is that it can level out the playing field; it's not about who you know or your background, it’s people responding to what they see.
“Of course I’ve struggled at some points and felt, earlier on, that it started to influence what I was making. It’s a process of realising that and then acting upon it, remaining conscious of your practice and what it is you actually want from it. I very much relate to the idea that being honest to the work you make should be at the forefront of what you do. Instagram is a tool for sharing your work, not for influencing it.”
Serving an algorithm is futile
According to Brighton-based illustrator Joe La-Placa, attempting to please algorithms are at the heart of the issue. While Instagram’s creative network is valuable, preserving the integrity of your own work is more important.
“I think, as a whole, Instagram can be a great way to share your work and connect with other artists, but it’s very easy to slide into a hole. I find that if you’re not constantly posting, then you’re losing followers, and then just making meaningless work to stay on top of the algorithms. It can also be incredibly disheartening to post a piece of work you really love and not get the response you want.
“The way I try to deal with the issue is to take regular breaks from it, concentrate on my own craft and try not compare myself too much to others.”
Create, fail, learn, repeat
With a multitude of dedicated followers, Virginia-based lettering artist Elizabeth Gray has had ample experience with the platform’s highs and lows. By trial and error, she’s built up a thick skin for social media disappointment. She reminds us of the hidden mechanisms, tricks and processes that determine the nature and extent of Instagram engagement.
“I actually have Instagram to thank – or rather, the art and lettering community on Instagram – for introducing me to the wonderful world of lettering. I’m a self-taught artist, and the app was and is a place for me to experiment, get loads of constructive feedback, and make friends in the world of design. It’s one of my portfolios and a place where 80% of my clients have found me. It’s brought more opportunities than I ever imagined when I was starting out. But it hasn’t been easy, and sometimes I still get frustrated when a post isn’t getting the reach I think it deserves.
“If something performs the way I wanted it to, I take a step back and analyse it objectively, not personally. ‘Create, fail, learn, repeat’ is a little mantra that keeps me going when times get tough. But sometimes I think the problem is our attitude towards the algorithm, and not the algorithm itself.
“I’ve had my account since before the Instagram algorithm changed, and my entire time on the platform has been a cycle of trying new things, failing much more than I've succeeded, trying not to take the failures personally, and trying again. And again. And again.”
“Some say you shouldn’t create work just for algorithms, and while I partly agree with that, I also think that if you want to grow on a platform, you have to understand how it works, then adjust your content accordingly. Your post’s performance isn’t always based on the quality of your artwork – there are so many other things to consider, such as posting when your audience is the most active, creating context within a caption, photographic storytelling, and the overall presentation of your work.
“If you want to succeed with something like Instagram, you’ve got to put in the work, be ok with being wrong sometimes, and understand that it isn’t always 100% your fault when a post ‘fails’, so to speak. But it isn't always 100% the algorithm's fault either.”
Numbers are not validation
Washington DC-based art director and illustrator Carlos Carmonamedina avoids the temptation to seek validation on social media by using Instagram as an online sketchbook to document his creative process, and to push himself to experiment.
“There is a daily pressure to ‘feed the gram’ – to come up with content relevant to your audience, time the posts strategically, craft visually consistent images, join hashtag challenges, respond to commenters and engage other profiles. But at the end of the day, when you look at the numbers, it can all seem fruitless. Personally, I try not to rely on those numbers as the validation of my work (although it is pretty tempting).
“Two things have helped me release the stress of putting my work out for public judgment: First, being consistent but allowing room for play. This year I started posting a drawing every day, not so much to be present in everyone’s feed, but to allow myself room to experiment, outside of my comfort zone. I want to stop stressing about the drawings being perfect and use Instagram more as a record of my creative practice – a public sketchbook instead of a formal portfolio.
“Secondly, I plan ahead. One way to relieve stress is to plan the posts in advance (tools like Later or Hootsuite are great for this). When you have a series of posts that are already scheduled, you can focus better on other things.”
Ask yourself what you want from it
For UK-based illustrator Emily Dymond, the main thing is to understand your motivation for sharing work online – what you want to gain from it, why it’s important to you. She reminds us that the number of followers or likes on a profile doesn’t necessarily correlate with talent, and that social media is a game that often excludes people.
“Instagram can be a great source of inspiration, but it’s pretty noticeable that you tend to only see artists with thousands of followers. It’s a catch 22; you're inspired by the work but you feel like you’re never going to ‘make it’ unless you gain a huge following. You might work really hard on something, be proud of it and excited to share it, so you post it and it gets a few likes – great! But I can’t help feeling underwhelmed by the experience. I think there's a real danger in artists feeling like they have to adapt their style or the content of their work to something more ‘on trend’ because it gets you more engagement.
“There’s also a noticeable cliquey-ness in the Instagram community. Artists with big followings tend to big up other artists with big followings, because they know their own followings will grow and benefit. The reality is, it’s a game, and if you don’t want to play that way, it can feel like you’re kind of screwed!
“But it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re creating work and what we want to gain from sharing it. Is it about getting likes? Is it about work opportunities? Or is it about being brave enough to put something you’ve worked hard on out into the world, with the hope that someone, somewhere, finds it relatable or enjoyable? I think it’s probably all three, but I’m trying to remind myself that the last point is the essential one.
“A while back I was on an inspiration hunt and came across the AOI World Illustration Awards for 2018. I was looking through the nominees and winners, and going straight to their Instagram pages to see more. It was a huge eye-opener; I was finding these insanely talented people and some had less than 100 followers. I immediately messaged some of my illustrator pals and said ‘Look how talented these folks are! They don’t have thousands of followers either. We’re doing okay!’”
Header image: Handsome Frank’s original post on Instagram, which sparked ongoing debate and conversation.