Social media puts up a curtain of deception.
“This guy has so many followers, he must be good!”. We've all been trained to think this way to some degree. When it comes to photography, we think that a certain degree of popularity correlates to a certain degree of skill and mastery. After all, how else would popular people become popular?
Well, for most cases when it comes to photography on Instagram, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth is, being popular on Instagram has less and less to do with actually being good at photography the more followers you have.
Sure, there’s a base level of skill required to be successful and popular, and truthfully (and perhaps somewhat harshly) if you never hit that base level, you'll probably never hit the follower number you're looking for. The people with real big photography accounts out there truly are great and/or accomplished photographers - remember that. But on Instagram, once you hit that base level of skill, Instagram becomes more a game of marketing, not craft - unless you don't care about growth.
The reality is, for most accounts, you don’t know where their followers came from. They might have come from mass media, or YouTube, or a blog. They might have been suggested users, or were around prior to the several booms over the last 7 years. Someone’s followers might be bought, or illegally obtained, or maybe that person just plays the Instagram game really well.
For the budding photographer, this truth is paramount to learn. The popularity farce is perhaps one of the most detrimental, commonly-believed perspectives people have - the idea that someone with a large following is inherently great at their craft.
Commonly, there is far less correlation between follower count and skill than you might think. I literally can’t be bothered to count the insane number of people out there with a decently sized following, doing nothing but milking the algorithm via constant, clichè, tired images with little creativity or thoughtfulness.
The truth is, you don’t know the original intention of the person’s account you’re looking at. You don’t know whether or not that person is literally just trying to become Instagram famous, or if they only care about the art and the craft, or if it’s even something in between. You’ll never know what that mix is until you ask them.
Until then, there’s only assumptions, and your perception.
It’s your job to know what good looks like
And with not knowing the goals of that person, without knowing the full history of where and how they obtained their followers, you’re left with one thing and one thing only - the ability to judge whether or not their work is worthy of your attention, and maybe even admiration.
You need the skill to be able to know what good photography actually looks like.
You need the ability to see a trendy shot for what it is - a trend. You need to recognise that the photo of someone taking a photo of a mobile phone, taking a photo something else (you know, those inception-type images. And when you really stop to think about them, it’s kinda like, “why?”) is actually just a marketing shot, not one that’s going to help you get better at photography.
You need the ability to spot Photoshopped images, so you can distinguish whether they’re digital art that you can’t actually replicate in the real world, so that you can make a decision to discard it because it’s fake, or see if you can replicate how it was done and actually learn something.
You need the ability to look at a feed and distinguish if they’re actually a photographer worth following because they’re good at photography, or if they’re just an “influencer” posting images that are great for the algorithm (and for the record, both are fine - you do you. I’m just assuming you want to become a better photographer in some respect, but if you’re also trying to become an influencer, then more power to you too.).
But above all, you need the ability to become a strong curator of your own incoming influences and watch what’s coming into your sphere of control so you don’t get sucked in to the wrong things and put yourself down the wrong path to mastering the craft.
And don’t get me wrong, I see Instagram as a marketing tool, so even I’m guilty of milking the algorithm occasionally with images I know will perform well - I don’t think any person who’s popular on Instagram can deny doing something like that.
My point is, there’s a lot of noise out there. So much noise that you might get tired of wading through it all and think that it’s actually signal.
It’s your job as the curator of your own life to get better at finding the proper signals and people that are fit for your objectives. It’s your job to be able to see what great work looks like, so that you can identify that in the real world and improve yourself in that direction.
Instagram is marketing. Unless it’s not. There are people out there who specifically try to get insta-famous, there are people out there who don’t care at all and only worry about their craft, and there are people in between. Most of the time though, It’s the first one - marketing.
Now, I’m not condemning people who are specifically using platforms like Instagram for marketing. On the contrary, if you’re looking to take your photography seriously as a business, in 2019 you need to be both a great photographer and a great marketer.
What I’m saying is that most people fall into the trap of conflating popularity and followers, with skill of the craft, and those two things are not the same and should be learned separately.
Be vigilant and remember that. It’s up to you to choose carefully who’s worthy of inspiring you every time you scroll through your feed.