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A new refrain from the artists: ‘We almost gave up on Instagram’

SAN FRANCISCO — Deb JJ Lee built a career in illustration on Instagram, one colorful comic at a time.

Some of the comics max. leeward, 26, posted on the photo sharing site told stories about fantastic worlds; others meditated on Mx. Lee’s experiences as a Korean-American. Without Instagram, Mx. Lee, who uses they/them pronouns, said they would not illustrate graphic novels or publish picture books.

But seven years, hundreds of posts, and tens of thousands of followers later, Mx. Lee’s relationship with Instagram has cooled, not because they no longer need social media to promote her art, but because the app has changed so much that she seems to no longer welcome artists.

The changes, Max. Lee said, “they have been nothing short of harmful to artists, especially those who take still images.”

Instagram was founded in 2010 as a photo sharing site where people could post, curate, and showcase snapshots of their lives. It became a destination for an endless variety of beautiful, fun, quirky and vibrant images of food, national parks and everything in between, becoming one of the Internet’s most important visual repositories.

But Instagram, which is owned by Meta, has in recent years increasingly shifted towards video. It introduced Reels, short videos meant to compete with video-sharing app TikTok, and launched features to encourage people to make videos together. Their algorithms seem to favor videos over photos. Last year, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, said the site “was no longer a photo-sharing app.”

That has caused angst among many Instagram users, who have relied on the app to share photos, illustrations, comics and other still images with friends and followers. In July, after Instagram introduced updates to mimic TikTok’s video features, celebrities like Kylie Jenner and others rioted, declaring their intention to “make Instagram Instagram again.” The reaction was so intense that Instagram temporarily reversed the changes.

For artists who make a living off Instagram, the platform’s move toward video is more of an existential threat. Many of these artists are photographers, illustrators, or graphic novelists whose work does not translate easily to video. Increasingly, they find that audiences on Instagram don’t see their posts, their growth on the platform stagnates, and their reach shrinks.

Some young artists who might have started on Instagram are now venturing into membership-based photo-sharing apps like VSCO and Glass. Others are exploring career-oriented platforms like Behance and LinkedIn or other social media apps like Twitter and TikTok.

“Twitter really matters a lot more than Instagram right now”, Mx. Lee said. They now spend most of their energy on Twitter, where, they said, it’s easier to discern how well a post is doing.

In a statement, Meta said he cares “deeply about all creators, including artists.” The Silicon Valley company, which is trying to steer content creators away from rivals YouTube and TikTok, has invited some artists to join its programs that pay influencers to use their products.

But MX. Lee, who was recently invited by Instagram to earn a bonus for posting reels, said the incentives were “even less reliable than freelance illustration.” Even if their Reels received 11 million views in a month, they said, Meta would only pay them $1,200.

Maddy MuellerThe 25-year-old, who illustrates infographics and paints backgrounds for animations, knew she would have to promote herself through social media after graduating from college in 2019. She joined Instagram to post her work.

But trying to get attention for his art on the app soon became “an uphill battle” against the algorithm, he said. Ms. Mueller said that she often felt that the number of hashtags in a post, or the time it was uploaded, mattered more than the actual content of the post.

To gain exposure for her work on Instagram, she began animating her paintings that were meant to be still, so her posts would be treated as videos. Promoting her art meant less time to do it, she said.

Last year, Mueller, who lives in St. Louis, began focusing on Twitter, where he discovered a growing community of artists. She was invited to illustrate zines, she joined private Discord groups that shared career opportunities, and she grew her following through hashtag events, in which artists tweeted and shared with tags like #PortfolioDay and #VisibleWomen.

Ms. Mueller now has almost 5,000 followers on Twitter, compared to around 1,000 on Instagram.

Once he experienced the community and growth of Twitter, he said, “I basically almost gave up on Instagram.”

Alicia Hirsch, a Toronto photographer who also uses the they/them pronouns, said they adapt their content to the whims of the Instagram algorithm. They post their work on the site almost daily, sometimes sharing multiple versions of a photo, for example the raw version, the color graded version, and the final version. They have also learned how to make videos to avoid a “fall to the bottom of the algorithm barrel”.

“I would never do it if we were not in a time when social networks are the queens”, Mx. Hirsch, 25, added that they suspected the content wasn’t always what his followers wanted to see, either.

The changes have also made Instagram a more challenging place to find illustrators to hire, said Chad Beckerman, art director and agent for the CAT Agency, which represents children’s book illustrators. It had once been easy to search for illustrators on the app and see their work, he said, but the platform was now cluttered with irrelevant posts, camera rolls and stories, a feature people use to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours.

The algorithm “doesn’t chase quality,” Beckerman said. “I don’t think the algorithm even cares what the person’s work looks like.”

In the last five years, emmen ahmed, 26, earned nearly 18,000 followers on Instagram by depicting South Asian faith and femininity in earth-toned illustrations. But when she began illustrating more this year after cutting back on her production during graduate school, she said, she also felt pressure to make tutorials and videos that showcased her artistic process.

Ms. Ahmed, who lives in Detroit, sells prints, custom paintings, and clothing featuring her work. She said that she would rather focus on making art, but that she couldn’t afford to ignore how Instagram had moved beyond photos and images.

“With these big changes, you fear that Instagram is no longer timeless,” he said. “It’s going to be phased out.”


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