I joined Instagram in 2011, back when I was guilty of over-sharing my weekly nail polish colour, apparent love of homemade pancakes and overuse of the built-in Valencia filter (with a border of course).
Back then, there was no visual same-ness, no Instagram “aesthetic” and we, the general public, didn’t even know what ~on-brand~ or ~self-branding~ meant. Between the years of 2011-2019, my account has gone from something I gave very little thought to, to a creative outlet where I built a community outside of just my sister and best friend.
The landscape of digital sharing and consumption has changed dramatically over the last eight years. However, in the beginning it allowed artists, writers, creators and designers (read: all creative peeps) to be innovative and to create extraordinary pieces, which in turn could be shared in an instant.
But now, an app that used to be about social creativity has changed markedly. Where once we used it as a creative platform, the way we use it socially has instead stifled creativity, and an algorithm now dictates what it thinks we want to see – I don’t know about you, but it’s generally pretty wrong.
It became harder to disassociate my imagery from the number of likes they received. I began to feel the weight of posting things because I knew they’d be popular, instead of just posting what I felt connected to. I started to feel pressure to conform to popular content trends, which went against everything I believed in.
In essence, Instagram began to feel like a chore – it wasn’t fun anymore. It had become my work, but it had also become uninspiring work. I felt that a place I used to enjoy coming to, and sharing beautiful imagery on was now just a place of data and metrics. I felt uninspired to share with the community I had created over the years.
It also left me uninspired as a follower, not just as a creator. On my daily scroll I found everyone (okay, that’s talking in absolutes) had assimilated to the Instagram sameness; ideas had been borrowed and replicated by so many accounts, that there was the repetition of travel photos and then the over-selling of presets began.
Instagram moved from out-of-the-ordinary ideas into a world of carbon copy of 4:5 images.
I believe creativity and mental health are fundamentally connected, and for me this is very apparent as my career is based around creativity. So I noticed as my creativity became stifled, my mental health started to decline. The pressure of beating the algorithm and making sure my work was “good enough” was slowly taking over. So much of social media had become based on how others perceive you, and this created an environment based on popularity. The older and more in tune with myself I’ve become, especially creatively, the more that hasn’t sat well with me.
Eventually I decided it was time to step back and assess where I was at with everything. This was the best thing I could have done. It made me realise somewhere along the way I had begun creating content for other people, for the algorithm – instead of creating for myself. I think because likes and comments became immediate feedback, validation and a baseline measurement for “good work”, I had over time lost sight of what was important to me when it came to sharing content.
So I asked myself a couple of questions.
1. Why am I using Instagram?
2. How can I make it fun again?
3. What is truly important for me?
And my answer is: the creative challenges, the evolution of my work and, of course my amazing community.
The beneficial thing about asking myself these questions was, it made me assess this “like” based culture. It made me I assess where I was spending my creative energy and in turn, it allowed me to tune back into all the creative ventures I had going on outside of a digital space. The most liberating thing about taking it all offline was the fact that I wasn’t sharing it with anyone but myself. No one had to like it, I just created it. It removed the pressure, which is why Instagram’s latest change is so, so liberating for me.
The implementation of “no likes” trial is such a great move on Instagram’s behalf. I think it will encourage creatives to produce work not just because the internet thinks its popular. No likes lends to less pressure, thus it creates an environment people are comfortable expressing themselves in — which is what Instagram or any social platform should be. Furthermore, I think it will also encourage people to like and follow things they have genuine interest in, versus what everyone else is liking, as well as un- follow accounts and start following accounts that we gain knowledge or a creative inspiration from.
For a long time now I have believed Instagram to be like the empty shop/restaurant theory — if no one is in a shop or restaurant you’re less likely to go in as you believe it to be unpopular. On Instagram, likes dictated this for the most part. If the account didn’t boast a large amount of engagement, you were less likely to, well, engage.
From a mental health perspective, I think it’s great for all of us who have basically grown up on Instagram. “No likes” is a step toward meaningful engagement and away from chasing validation.
I recognise that Instagram is only a small part of my life, and it’s also only a small part of my career. I use Instagram as a platform for my business Creating Substance; a multi-disciplinary agency, and to showcase work. But I do have my influencer component to all of this as well. Reminding myself that Instagram likes aren’t the ultimate goal has been so important.
I hope people who use Instagram personally and/or for business are making this same realisation, and that the “no likes” trial helps us all find our identity in other ways, with less of it derived from who we are online. I also think all of this has been a reminder that we all have to be more mindful about the way we use Instagram. We need to make sure that we recognise that likes, comments and engagement shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of sharing.
I do think Instagram can be a great place for creatives, and these incremental changes are a step in the right direction. It truly is about boundaries – for mental health, for creativity, for friendships and relationships. You really do have to use it wisely.
I’m hoping this is a change that sticks. Here’s to the next iteration of Instagram where creative people globally push boundaries instead of for likes, because there is an abundance of really cool shit on the old ‘gram. In some ways it’s become the pinnacle of creativity. Some will argue that isn’t true, but hey – 1 billion people are using the platform monthly. Ten years ago, those billion folks wouldn’t have been able to share their creative work to that kind of crowd.
Let’s bring Instagram back to it’s roots. Let’s make our content about self-expression, not validation.