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Is Instagram Making Artists Miserable?

I remember I first time I read that Instagram was going to drop it's chronological feed in favour of an algorithm. We were in the car on the way to a family holiday in the lake district. My stomach dropped and I turned to my boyfriend and said something along the lines of 'this is going to ruin my business.' What I didn't realise at the time was how miserable it was going to make me feel too.

I've never studied marketing, I went to university and studied fine art drawing, a course that taught us absolutely nothing about marketing our artwork in either the real or online world. Everything I know I've taught myself by trial and error, or by personal research. I must have gotten fairly good at it, as thus far, I have managed to make a business for myself online.

I've been a part time artist for about 5 years, having worked multiple part-time jobs to help pay the bills and support myself financially, whilst slowly building a portfolio of work and a customer base. It will be 2 years this July that I took the plunge and went full time with my art. My income is largely commission based, however I do also sell originals and prints in my online shop. Instagram has been my main marketing resource this far, with the majority of my sales coming through the platform. My sales last year were absolutely amazing. I can't say I made a fortune, but for the first time I was making more money a month than I had in any other job in the past. That was my dream. I couldn't believe it. I thought all my years of hard work had paid off. I had done it. I was finally making a living from my art.

But now the Instagram algorithm has been making it increasingly hard for artist's like me to make a living. The nature of the algorithm is to push down posts and only show them to a tiny portion of my audience - I think the most you can hope to gain is around 7% with 1% often being far more likely. Say 5% of my audience are shown a recent painting, they are people who engage with my content regularly, and are likely to already own at least one of my artworks. As lovely and supportive as my customers and followers are - I can't expect them to continuously fill their house with my art! I can only really make money from reaching new people. I may be able to reach new people by now paying for it, but I refuse to do so. I'm not rolling in money, far from it - yet Facebook (who own Instagram) are and why should I have to pay for something I had for free a year and a half ago? I'm also very skeptical about how successful boosting posts would be in drawing in my target audience. I have experimented with paying for promotion in the past and it's never been particularly fruitful and I don't think I've ever followed a promoted artist suggested to me in my Instagram feed, let alone bought something from them. I feel like I've built genuine connections with people online and that is why they choose to buy from me. That's not something you can pay for.

Instagram favors the rich and famous. Posts by well known bloggers or celebrities with super large followings will receive thousands of likes on their photos, advertising pizza or spot cream, while a painting I'm proud of that has taken me 3 days will be like tumbleweed. It's not great for your self esteem when a slice of pizza is getting more likes than something you've put your heart and soul into. I feel like it's turning me into a horrible, resentful person. Comparing myself to others all the time - and that's not someone I want to be AT ALL. As a rule now, if I feel the comparison monster rearing it's ugly head, I'll unfollow the person that's causing me anguish, and do something positive to counteract those negative feelings - like supporting an artist I love on Patreon, or buying from someone's Etsy shop

The Instagram algorithm is turning artists and creatives into 'like' machines, constantly chasing the likes for their work to gain visibility. For example, I catch myself wondering whether I should share more motivational quotes on my feed, as I see that's what does well on the platform. I'm not a graphic designer and I'm never thought of myself as good at typography, yet here I am considering going down that path, just because I know that it will gain me some exposure.

It's all very bewildering and to be honest I feel quite frightened about my future as an artist. I feel like I try and try and try but it's not getting me anywhere. It's crushing my creative spirits. I often don't feel like making work anymore which makes me feel horribly sad, as this what I've worked really hard to do. I'm lucky that my partner has a full time steady job to support me when times are hard, but that's not a sustainable solution and many artists and illustrators don't have that same luxury. I talked about this topic on my Instagram stories recently, and I was flooded with messages from fellow artists and creatives feeling the same. That is one really positive thing Instagram has done, connect me with lots of supportive, talented and like minded people. That is definitely something to be grateful for. It makes me so sad, that all these people who I admire and who's work I love, might not be able to continue doing what they do so well. It was only when I read the article : We need to talk about Instagram: Illustration agency Handsome Frank on algorithm anxiety which spoke about the negative effects the algorithm was having on the agencies illustrators, that I realised what a serious problem this is. If the best illustrators in the industry are also feeling this way, what hope does little old me have?

I can't help but compare this situation to wider society and to the housing market, with artists and creatives being priced out of the area they moved to in search of cheaper rent and house prices, as soon as they've 'gentrified' the area, or made it 'cool.'

Artists and creatives flooded to Instagram in the beginning, it's photo grid style lending itself perfectly to an online portfolio. It enabled you to share work in progress, behind the scenes and completed artwork to the world in a way that wasn't possible before. Now the big corporate companies have muscled in once again, and the creatives who made the platform what it is are left out in the cold, looking for another way to sustain a living.

But there must be something we can do??? There must be other ways of promoting ourselves away from this place. I'm exploring various options - a newsletter, art fairs, exhibitions, maybe a Patreon page. Perhaps I will look back at this time and see that it was for the best, and that it pushed me to grow my career in other ways. But in the meantime I will trudge on in this strange game of Instagram and hope for the best.


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